The United States Constitution includes two oaths of office. The first, and better known one, is the presidential oath in Article Two, which reads, "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." Why does it include “affirm” in parentheses? Because the Framers understood that an incoming president might object to “swearing,” which could indicate an oath before God. This might also explain why the Constitution does not add “so help me God” at the end, although most modern oath-takers do so.
The second oath, in Article Six, similarly requires all national and state officials to “be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.”
Why are these provisions important? One answer is that our 18th-century forbears deeply believed in the magnitude of swearing oaths before God: violating an oath, after all, might lead to Divine, as well as secular, wrath.
Furthermore, note that allegiance is sworn to the federal Constitution. Before the Revolution, colonial officials swore fealty to the king. Afterward, but before the Constitution was ratified in 1788, state legislatures required members to swear loyalty to their particular state. As John Adams had said, “Massachusetts is our country.” The Framers debated which of these to follow—state or federal—and even whether to require oaths altogether. James Wilson of Pennsylvania argued that they were unnecessary because “a good government did not need them and a bad one…ought not to be supported.”[i] Requiring allegiance to the federal government was a major step.
But there is another crucial question: Can we tell when someone is, or is not, obeying the oath? What does it mean, “to the best of my ability, [to] preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?” Donald Trump was impeached twice by the House of Representatives. Did he live up to the terms of his oath or not? How do we decide?
Presidents will always insist that they complied with the oath. Office-holders as varied as Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt, among others argued that they had the power to interpret the Constitution to do what they believed counted as preserving, protecting and defending it. Other people say the Supreme Court is the “ultimate interpreter” and presidents must abide by the justices’ rulings. The South African Constitution, for example, makes it clear that that country’s Constitutional Court takes precedence over any contrary assertions by the President. Would you support that?
Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution. Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced―then they offer possible solutions.
"A fascinating, thoughtful, and provocative look at what in the Constitution keeps the United States from being “a more perfect union.” " Kirkus Reviews - Best Middle Grade Nonfiction of 2017
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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