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Constitutional Topic: Presidential Inaugurations

The Constitutional Topics pages at the USConstitution.net site are presented to delve deeper into topics than can be provided on the Glossary Page or in the FAQ pages. This Topic Page concerns Presidential Inaugurations. The inauguration of the President is mentioned in the Constitution in Article 2, Section 1, in the 12th Amendment, and in the 20th Amendment.

A primary source for this topic page is the Government Printing Office's Analysis and Interpretation of the Constitution, specifically the sections on Article 2 and the 20th Amendment. Details on the Chester Arthur inauguration are found at The National Park Service and about Calvin Coolidge's inauguration at Vermont Public Radio. The January 14, 2009, speech of Dr. Donald Kennon at the State Department also illuminated several of the issues with historical inaugurations. The New York Times from November 15, 1916 is courtesy of the New York Times Archive. The anecdote about Lyndon Johnson's "Bible" is found in the transcript of an interview with Lawrence O'Brien.


The 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama was, as were all inaugurations before it, filled with pomp and circumstance. Everything from concerts to speeches, parades to formal balls.

None of this, of course, is required by or dictated by the Constitution.

The Original Constitution

The original Constitution requires only one thing for an inauguration. The incoming president must recite this oath:

I do solemnly swear 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.

Since the act or "swearing" is counter to some religions, and may have no meaning at all to someone who is irreligious, the Constitution specifically allows the word "swear" to be replaced with the word "affirm". Of all the inaugurations, only Franklin Pierce chose to use the word "affirm".

These 35 words are required by the Constitution before the president can "enter on the execution of [the] office". In other words, until the oath is taken, the president may not actually do anything that the office is normally allowed to do.

Beyond the oath, there was no other direct reference to inauguration. By tradition, the term of office began on March 4, and on March 4, 1797, the first President, George Washington, gave up the seat of power and passed it on to John Adams, beginning a tradition of peaceful transition of power the United States has enjoyed ever since.

The 12th Amendment

The 12th Amendment, primarily written to close loopholes in the functioning of the Electoral College, also set in constitutional stone the date that a president's term would begin - though not directly. It stated, instead, that if by the 4th of March, the date set by Washington's example, the House of Representatives had been unable to decide on a president, the vice president would act as president until such time as the House got its act together.

The 20th Amendment

As time passed, and technology improved, it became clear that the time between the November elections and the March inauguration was too long for the country to wait for a new president. The 20th Amendment took effect on October 15, 1933, and shortened the first term of President Franklin Roosevelt by several weeks (not that Roosevelt noticed, since he was elected an unprecedented four times). Roosevelt's first term, then, began on March 4, 1933, and ended less than four years later on January 20, 1937.

The Amendment is even more specific than that, though - it not only dictated a date for the end of one term and the start of the next, but a time, too. The switch-over was to happen at noon on the 20th of January. Previously, the term was considered ended at the stroke of midnight on March 3.

Problems

The Constitution still does not fully cover the topic, even with all this history behind it. Here is a list of common questions about the inauguration.

What is the oath of office for the Vice President of the United States?

There is no such specific oath in the Constitution, but Article 6 does specify that all executive officers must take an oath. In U.S. law, specifically at 5 USC 3331, the following oath is prescribed for all legislative, judicial, and executive officers except the President:

I, (name), do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

This law also allows the use of the word "affirm" instead of "swear", if desired.

If the President doesn't say the oath correctly, does it count?

This question arose after the inauguration of Barack Obama, because the wording given to him by Chief Justice John Roberts, and recited back by Obama, slightly mangled the oath. Specifically, Roberts prompted Obama to say "I will execute the Office of President of the United States faithfully", misplacing the word "faithfully." The sentiment was there, but the wording was wrong.

Being spoken by flawed humans, the oath has been flubbed before. In 1929, former president and chief justice Howard Taft administered the oath to Herbert Hoover. Taft prompted Hoover to say "preserve, maintain, and defend the Constitution", instead of "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution." The gaffe passed unnoticed until a young student, who heard the inauguration on the radio, wrote to Hoover to ask about the mistake. Hoover acknowledged the mistake, but there is no record of the oath being readministered.

The question of whether Obama could legally execute the office was put to rest the next day, January 21, 2009, when, out of an "abundance of caution," Roberts and Obama met in the White House and Roberts gave Obama the oath again, accurately.

However, precedent would say that it does not matter. When George Washington first became president, he was unable to take the oath until April 30, 1789. The delay involved the time it took for members of Congress to travel to New York City, the temporary capital. In law, though, the Congress back-dated his presidency to March 4, 1789, which is an indication that contemporaries of the Constitution's creation put more stock in the assumption of the office than in the administration of the oath.

Today, to be safe, the oath is administered as close to noon on the 20th of January as possible.

Speaking of the Chief Justice, where does it say that that person has to administer the oath?

There is no constitutional requirement on the person administering the oath, though when the inauguration is planned, the chief justice is tapped to administer it. The only exception was for George Washington's first inaugural, since there was no chief justice yet. In that case, a New York state judge did the honors. If you look just at the Constitution, with its lack of specificity on the issue, it could be inferred that the oath can be given to the president by any ordinary citizen. The oath, though, is generally administered by someone with some authority.

Notably, Lyndon Johnson's first oath of office was administered by Sarah Hughes, a U.S. District Court judge. The image of Johnson being sworn in with a shell-shocked Jacqueline Kennedy at his side following the death of her husband, is a classic photo of that era. Hughes is the first and, thus far, only woman to administer the oath to the President.

Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency in 1923, following the death of Warren Harding. Coolidge was at his father's home in Plymouth, Vermont, when word came that Vice President Coolidge was now President Coolidge. By the light of two oil lamps, Coolidge was given the oath by his father, who was a notary public. Because there was some outcry about the venue of the oath, in a private residence, and the qualifications of his father to give the oath, Coolidge was readministered the oath upon return to Washington, D.C.

Chester Arthur also took the oath in a private home following the death of the president. Arthur took the oath in his New York City home in 1881, after the death of James Garfield. The ceremony was private, and a public ceremony was held two days later in Washington.

Other presidents, like Woodrow Wilson in 1917, refused to take the oath publicly on a Sunday. Wilson, then, took the oath on Sunday, March 4, 1917, in a private ceremony, and in a public ceremony on the 5th. Notably, this was the inauguration for Wilson's second term, but there was concern that no one would be president on the 4th if Wilson refused to take the oath at all.

Obama was not sworn in at exactly noon. Who was president from noon, when George Bush stopped being president, to 12:05 or so, when Obama took the oath?

This question is not a new one, and in fact, Chief Justice John Marshall, in 1821, wrote that when one president's term ended, the next one began without delay. This fact was reported in the New York Times on November 16, 1916, in a report issued by the State Department in response to Woodrow Wilson's announcement that he would not be sworn in on a Sunday. Marshall had been asked a similar question for James Monroe, whose term would begin on Sunday, March 4, 1821. This practice of delaying the public inauguration, when the 20th falls on a Sunday, continues today - the last was Ronald Reagan's second inauguration in 1985.

The letter from Marshall noted that since the term of office began on the 4th of March, the previous term was considered to be ended at the stroke of midnight of the 3rd. Then, typically, the oath would be given to the next president at midday on the 4th, leaving a 12 hour gap in the presidency. Specifically, Marshall wrote that this gap was a time "during which the executive power could not be exercised."

So, then, the gap is a time when there is a powerless president. The passage of time marks the start of the office, but the oath marks the start of the powers of the office.

Does the oath have to be sworn on a Bible? Could it be sworn on a copy of the Koran?

There is no constitutional requirement that the oath be sworn on a Bible. There is also no prohibition. So, a Bible can be used, but so could anything, including the Koran, the Talmud, or a copy of Sports Illustrated. The point is not where the president's hand rests when he or she takes the oath, but that the oath be recited, and then carried out.

This having been said, reports indicate that almost all of the oaths have been taken on a Bible. There are a few notable exceptions. John Quincy Adams chose to place his hand on a book of laws. During Lyndon Johnson's first inauguration, which took place aboard Air Force One following the death of President John Kennedy, Johnson placed his hand on a Catholic missal, it being readily available on the airplane. Finally, in Obama's second "abundance of caution" oath, Obama only recited the oath, and placed his hand on nothing.

When Obama was given the oath, the Chief Justice asked him at the end, "So help you God?" That's not in the Constitution - is that a problem?

Despite some erroneous news reports to the contrary, the words "So help me God," uttered without fail following the administration of the oath, are not an actual part of the oath. The words are, however, a part of the inauguration tradition, dating back to George Washington. It should be noted that the inclusion of the president's name is not mandated by the Constitution, but it is customary to add the name following the word "I".

The inclusion of these words was the subject of a lawsuit brought to federal court just before the 2009 inauguration. The plaintiffs argued that the words were extra-constitutional and constituted a religious test that is strictly forbidden in the Constitution. The suit argued that if Obama chose to say the words it would be fine - but to be prompted to say them by Roberts amounted to a religious test. The court, however, ruled that the phrase is an expression of the president, and not a part of the oath itself; that it is not required and cannot be; and that extemporaneous expressions of this kind cannot be preemptively stopped by the courts.


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