By placing a hand on the book and then kissing it, the oath-taker is acknowledging that, should he lie under oath, neither the words in the Bible nor his good deeds nor his prayers will bring him any earthly or spiritual profit–Hannah Rosefield, quoting an antique text.
Oaths go back to a time when they were the best available guarantee that a promise would be kept. The fear of divine retribution served as a guarantee that the oath would not be broken. In Greek Mythology, Medea extracts an oath from King Aegeus to protect her from harm. When she subsequently tricks him with bad behavior, he dares not violate his oath.
Since the Constitution had not yet established justice–courts and law–perhaps the best the authors of the Constitution could do to protect Constitutional Government from usurpation was to specify an oath.
Article VI. of the Constitution explicitly requires legislators to promise to support the Constitution.
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
Punishment of Senators or Representatives for failure to support the Constitution, if it has ever happened, must be very rare. From time to time, legislators have been expelled by the House or the Senate for other cause.
The Constitution specifies an oath for the President separately (Article II, Section 1.):
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.
I know of no President (with the possible exception of President Obama) who was charged with failing to faithfully execute the office.
- Andrew Johnson was charged with removing officers without consent of the Senate thus violating the Tenure of Office Act
- Richard Nixon would have been charged with failing to faithfully execute his office had he not resigned.
- Bill Clinton was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice.
Except in case of egregious offences, it seem unlikely that any president would ever be convicted of failure to support the Constitution, to faithfully execute his office, or to take care that the laws be faithfully executed. Reason suggests and tradition confirms that a single failure to execute a law to the letter, no matter how obscure or unreasonable the law, would violate a President’s oath. The contrary, like Medea’s trick on Aegeus, would seem to unreasonably bind the President to distasteful if not impossible conditions.
In her June, 1914, New Yorker article, A Brief History of Oaths and Books, Hannah Rosefield, explains why we have oaths, why we swear by books, and why any book, or no book, or even a notebook computer will do.
© William Hungerford – January 2015