Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Oath of Office: A Coda

You may have heard or read that there's a tempest in a teacup brewing over a report that Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) may be sworn in over the Koran. It's clear that Mr. Ellison is bad news -- a radical muslim who has lied about his past. But what piqued my interest was whether the Constitution permitted the use of Koran in a swearing-in and, more particularly, the history of officeholders using books other than the bible, or no book at all.

Eugene Volokh has authored several interesting and persuasive posts on the topic, in which he has pointed to evidence that Presidents Pierce and Hoover affirmed, rather than swore (suggesting they used no book at all), and that John Quincy Adams swore but did not swear over a bible because he believed that the bible should be reserved for religious use. The posts are here and here.

I had never heard the John Quincy Adams story, although it is not inconsistent with what I have read about him. In his biography of JQA, Robert Remini briefly describes the swearing-in ceremony without referring to whether a bible was used (pp. 75-76):

"On inauguration day, March 4, 1825, Adams recorded his thoughts on this momentous occasion. 'After two successive sleepless nights,' he wrote, 'I entered upon this day with a supplication to Heaven, first, for my country; secondly, for myself and for those connected with my good name and fortunes, that the last results of its events may be auspicious and blessed.' Then, accompanied by companies of militiamen, he arrived at the Capitol and was inaugurated in the presence of Monroe, Vice President Calhoun, and many of his rivals and friends. In his address he spoke about his belief that 'the will of the people is the source and the happiness of the people the end of all legitimate government upon earth.' He also described how the country had grown into a 'confederated representative democracy,' a term not used publicly by any previous president. When he concluded his remarks, he took the oath of office from Chief Justice John Marshall."

I decided to go back further. Dimly recalling from David Currie that the very first statute passed by the First Congress controversially prescibed the form of oath to be taken by state as well as federal officeholders, I looked it up. Sure enough, 1 Stat 23 (June 1, 1789), "An Act to regulate the Time and Manner of administering certain Oaths," specifically permits affirmations and does not require the use of a bible or any book at all. It states, in relevant part:

"That the oath or affirmation required by the sixth article of the Constitution of the United States, shall be administered in the form following, to wit: 'I, A.B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.'"

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