April 29, 2020

“Preserve, protect and defend…"

The oath an American president recites upon taking office includes the famous promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Interestingly, one of the first decisions a new president makes is which version of the presidential oath to take.

That’s because the paragraph in the Constitution that includes the presidential oath gives the president a simple, but potentially significant, choice of words.

That paragraph, in Article II, Section 1, says:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation: — “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

The option to either “swear” or “affirm” partly reflects the fact that some Founding Fathers were devout Christians and some weren’t. Thus, if the religious term “swear” didn’t fit a president's philosophy, he could say “affirm.”

On April 30, 1789, at his inauguration ceremony in New York City, George Washington became the first person to take the presidential oath.

Washington was a Christian. He chose to use the word “swear,” as every president except one has since then.

The exception was Franklin Pierce, who decided to say “affirm.”

Most presidents have also taken their oath while placing their hand on a Bible. However, nothing in the U.S. Constitution requires that.

It’s a tradition started by George Washington, who recited the oath with his hand on a Masonic Bible at his inauguration.

Although Masonic Bibles have since gone out of style, most presidents have sworn their oath with their hand on a Bible. I suspect this is partly to honor tradition and partly to avoid any controversy.

However, there have been some notable non-traditionalists.

John Quincy Adams took the oath with his hand on a book of law.

Theodore Roosevelt decided not to use a Bible or any other book when he recited the oath at his inauguration.

There has long been a debate about whether George Washington also started the tradition of saying “So help me God” after reciting the presidential oath.

Prof. Peter R. Henriques, author of the book Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington, wrote an interesting article about this debate that’s posted on the History News Network.

He concluded there’s no proof Washington actually said “So help me God.” 

Apparently, the first American president to do so was Chester A. Arthur, at his inauguration in 1881.

That’s essentially the only thing Arthur ever said that might be considered a famous quotation. Unfortunately for him, Washington is the one who usually (and probably wrongly) gets credit for it.

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