The Presidential Oath of Office
by Geri Zabela Eddins
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 Constitution of the United States, Article II, Section 1
• America Celebrates Its First Presidential Inauguration
• The Oath of Office Signals the Transfer of Power
• Washington’s Inauguration Established Long-lasting Traditions
• To Swear or to Affirm?
• Modern Inaugural Ceremony Highlights
• Historical Moments
• Tragedy Necessitates Speed and Improvisation
• Read More
• Reference Sources
America Celebrates Its First Presidential Inauguration
With the United States finally at peace and a bold new Constitution leading the road to a democratic future, the American people were ready for a celebration. The inauguration of the new country’s first president provided the perfect incentive for a large-scale celebration that lasted over two weeks and spanned nearly three hundred miles from the coast of Virginia to America’s first capital, New York City. The festivities culminated with the inaugural ceremony on April 30, 1789, when the nation’s beloved General George Washington arrived in a carriage to the steps of Federal Hall. On this crisp, sunny day, banners and flags rippled across the city, while more than ten thousand cheering citizens crammed into the streets, peered through the windows of neighboring buildings, and gathered on rooftops to welcome Washington and witness his inauguration.
The tall, stately Washington wore an American-made brown suit fastened with metal buttons emblazoned with eagles. He carried a ceremonial sword at his side. Washington strode up the stairs to the second-floor balcony that overlooked the city. From there he could see the thousands of spectators, which included the entirety of Congress assembled on a platform facing the hall. A table covered in red velvet was situated in the middle of the balcony, and on it rested a Bible. With Vice President John Adams at his side, Washington placed one hand on the Bible. Prompted by New York Chancellor Robert R. Livingston, Washington repeated the oath of office as required by the Constitution. Upon Washington’s completion of the thirty-five word oath, Livingston proclaimed, “It is done. Long live George Washington, President of the United States.” The crowds erupted into thunderous cheers and bells tolled throughout the city.
Shortly after swearing the oath of office, Washington addressed both the Senate and the House of Representatives in the Senate chamber, then walked up Broadway with a group of legislators and local political leaders to pray at St. Paul’s Chapel. Washington’s inaugural day festivities concluded with fireworks exploding over the city.
The Oath of Office Signals the Transfer of Power
Most inauguration days continue to be festive events celebrated by traditional ceremonies, parades, and balls, but it is the oath of office that reigns as the highlight. The oath is in fact the only part of our elaborate inaugural ceremonies and celebrations that is required by the Constitution. Article II, Section 1 provides the short—but imperative—oath that every president beginning with George Washington has sworn to: “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.” Every single president has stated these same words to swear his duty to the country and the Constitution, whether he was elected or required to assume the presidency following a president’s death or resignation.
The exact moment when a president-elect concludes the oath signals that he or she is now officially president and commander in chief. Regarding the remarkable significance of this uniquely peaceful transfer of power from one president to the next, historian Jim Bendat writes in Democracy’s Big Day, “Our Inauguration Day is one that demonstrates the continuity of our country and the renewal of the democratic process, as well as the healing that is sometimes needed after an election battle.”
Washington’s Inauguration Established Long-lasting Traditions
Soon after his inauguration, Washington wrote, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent.” With no guidelines having been prescribed in the Constitution for a presidential inauguration, many of Washington’s inaugural actions have served as precedents that continue to be followed by most of his successors. he took the oath of office in the open overlooking a crowd, he spontaneously kissed the Bible after swearing the oath, and he delivered his inaugural address immediately after the oath ceremony. Those presidents who chose not to deliver an inaugural address—John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester Arthur, and Gerald Ford—all assumed the presidency following his predecessor’s death or resignation and so decided that it would be inappropriate to give an inaugural address.
To Swear or to Affirm?
The Constitution does allow a president the choice of swearing or affirming the oath of office, but only one president—Franklin Pierce—chose to affirm his oath. It is unclear exactly why Pierce chose to affirm the oath. Some historians note that Pierce’s religious beliefs may have have deemed swearing the oath unethical. Others note that the tragic death of Pierce’s son soon after he was elected may have triggered his desire to “affirm” rather than “swear” the oath. The newly elected president had been traveling with his wife and young son in a train from Boston when it suddenly derailed and crashed into a field below the tracks; the Pierce’s son was killed. Pierce may have interpreted his son’s horrific death as punishment for his own sins. As a result, he refused to swear the oath at his 1853 inauguration and instead “affirmed” his loyalty to the Constitution.
Modern Inaugural Ceremony Highlights
Presidential inaugurations used to be celebrated on March 4, but Congress moved the date to January 20 when they ratified the Twentieth Amendment in 1933. The four-month delay between election and inauguration was needed in the early years of our country, but modern communication and transportation enabled newly elected administrations to assume power in a more timely manner. Following the passage of the Twentieth Amendment, Franklin Roosevelt became the first president to be inaugurated on January 20 in 1937.
Today inaugurations take place in Washington, D.C., on January 20 at the west front of the U.S. Capitol according to a schedule very similar to Washington’s. Though inaugural celebrations may last way past midnight, the swearing-in ceremony begins at 11:30 a.m. sharp. Following introductory band music, an invocation, and on occasion a poetry reading, the vice president-elect is sworn in first. At noon the president-elect is sworn in and then addresses the crowds and nation in his or her inaugural speech. The ceremony ends with a benediction and the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The new president and his or her family then join guests inside the Capitol’s Statuary Hall for lunch before parading back to the White House.
Though tradition plays a dominant role in presidential inaugural ceremonies, special circumstances and personal preferences sometimes compel changes.
- John Adams was the first president to receive the oath of office from the chief justice. Washington was not sworn in by the chief justice because the Supreme Court had not yet been established.
- James Monroe was the first president to take the oath of office outdoors in Washington, D.C. After Washington swore his first oath of office before the city of New York from the balcony of Federal Hall in 1789, all subsequent inaugural oaths were sworn indoors until 1817. Washington swore his second oath of office in the Senate Chamber of Congress Hall in Philadelphia. John Adams swore the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in Philadelphia’s Federal Hall before a joint session of Congress. For both of his inaugurations Thomas Jefferson swore his oath in the new Senate Chamber of the partially built Capitol building in Washington, D.C. And James Madison was administered the oath of office in the Hall of the House of Representatives in the Capitol.
- The inauguration of Martin Van Buren in 1837 marked the first time both the incumbent and president-elect rode together to the Capitol for the inaugural ceremony.
- In 1853 Franklin Pierce affirmed his oath, instead of swearing it. He also chose not to kiss the Bible, but to place his hand on it instead.
- Because inauguration day was a Sunday in 1877, Rutherford Hayes was sworn in before the actual inauguration day, and for the first time, a president swore the oath privately in the White House on Saturday. He then swore the oath in public that Monday.
- In 1917 Woodrow Wilson became the first president to swear the oath on a Sunday. He also was the first to swear the oath in the President’s Room at the Capitol in private.
- In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower chose not to kiss the Bible, but to recite a personal prayer following the oath.
- President Lyndon Johnson was the first to ask his wife to actively participate in the inaugural ceremony. In previous years, the clerk of the Supreme Court would be asked to hold the Bible for the oath. However, Johnson asked his wife, Lady Bird Johnson, to hold the Bible. First Lady Johnson wrote about the experience, “I was touched that Lyndon wanted me to hold the Bible for the swearing-in. We used the Bible Lyndon’s mother had given us . . . and I stood facing the throng between the Chief Justice and Lyndon while he took the oath.” A new tradition was born. Since Johnson’s inauguration in 1965, every subsequent first lady has held the Bible for her husband’s oath.
Tragedy Necessitates Speed and Improvisation
Following the death of a president, it is critical that power be transferred immediately to the successor. Many vice presidents have therefore been sworn in as president under unusual circumstances.
- President William Henry Harrison died just thirty-one days after his inauguration, thrusting Vice President John Tyler into the presidency. Tyler swore the oath of office two days after Harrison’s death at Brown’s Indian Queen Hotel in Washington, D.C. Chief Judge William Cranch of the U.S. Circuit Court for the District of Columbia administered the oath.
- Expediency in the wake of the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 forced Vice President Chester Arthur to be sworn in at his own home in New York.
- Vice President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in quickly following the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He swore the oath at a friend’s house—with no Bible, but with his hand raised.
- Calvin Coolidge became president when President Warren Harding died unexpectedly. Coolidge was visiting his family farm in Vermont and sleeping when messengers arrived with the news. His father happened to be a notary public, and so he administered the oath of office. Although a family Bible was available, Coolidge did not use it for the ceremony. His father also had the privilege of being the first to address him as “Mr. President.”
- Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson was sworn in on an airplane. He swore the oath on the presidential jet Air Force One at Love Field in Dallas, Texas. This was also the first time a president was sworn in by a woman, Sarah T. Hughes, who was the U.S. District Judge of the Northern District of Texas.
- Read the original text of the Constitution, including the presidential oath of office in Article II at: EarlyAmerica.com.
- Review the dates and locations at which each president swore the oath of office at: Memory.loc.gov.
- Read an expanded list of precedents and historic events at inaugurations at: lcweb2.loc.gov.
- And read the story of presidential and vice presidential succession in this article on this website “A Heartbeat Away: The Story of Presidential and Vice Presidential Succession.”
Bendat, Jim. Democracy’s Big Day: The Inauguration of Our President 1789-2009. New York: iUniverse Star, 2008.
Hess, Stephen. What Do We Do Now? A Workbook for the President-Elect. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.
Santella, Andrew. U.S. Presidential Inaugurations. New York: Children’s Press, 2002.
Wagner, Heather Lehr. The Presidency. New York: Chelsea House, 2007.
Editor’s Note: Website links listed in angle brackets are no longer available.
“Bibles and Scripture Passages Used by Presidents in Taking the Oath of Office.” 1 December 2008.
“From George Washington to George Bush, Speeches and Parades, Dances and Tradition.” 19 December 2008. <www.nytimes.com>.
“George Washington, First Inauguration, April 30, 1789.” 1 December 2008.
“George Washington gives first presidential inaugural address.” 19 December 2008.
“George Washington Inaugural Bible.” 19 December 2008. <www.stjohns1.org/bible.htm>.
“Inaugural History.” 13 November 2008.
“Inaugurals of Presidents of the United States: Some Precedents and Notable Events.” 13 November 2008.
“The Inauguration of George Washington, 1789.” 3 January 2009.
“John Tyler, Tenth Vice President (1841).” 4 December 2008.
“Oath of Office: To Swear or To Affirm.” NPR. 9 May 2016.
“Presidential Inaugural Quiz Follow-Up: The Sad Inaugural of Franklin Pierce.” U.S. Capitol Historical Society. 9 May 2016.
“Presidential Oaths of Office.” 1 December 2008.
“Who Said That? A Quick History of the Presidential Oath.” National Constitution Center. 9 May 2016.
©2017 Geri Zabela Eddins; The National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance