On Jan. 20, 2009, Barack Obama will be sworn into office as the 44th President of the United States by virtue of taking the Presidential Oath of Office, which is about the only element of the modern U.S. Presidential inauguration that is required by law. (And not even the entire oath that most Presidents take is constitutionally mandated.) The rest of the multimillion-dollar spectacle that surrounds American Presidential inaugurations is the product of tradition and media necessity, to say nothing of political expediency.
How out of hand has the inauguration process gotten? President-Elect Obama is scheduled to attend no less than 10 inaugural balls to ensure that every necessary constituency, venue, and photo op is given appropriate homage before the actual work of government begins, presumably sometime on Jan. 21. (For the record, Bill Clinton holds the record with 14 inaugural balls for his second term, while George W. Bush had a mere eight for each of his inaugurations.)
But back to the Oath of Office, which is the central event around which all of this hoopla is built. Article II, Section I, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution lays out exactly what it is that the President-Elect must swear (or affirm) in order to take office:
“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 “so help me God” or “this I swear” codicils that most President-Elects are known or suspected to have added? Not required. Use of a Bible? Not required. Repetition of the President-Elect’s name during the swearing — as in “I, George Washington, do solemnly swear?” Not required.
Section I of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution obliges the President-Elect take the oath on or before noon on the 20th of January following his November election, but the rest of the traditional rituals surrounding the inauguration of a U.S. President — reading of scripture, performance by a musician and/or poet from the President-Elect’s home state, and using the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court as the ceremonial officiant — are just that: traditions, not law.
In fact, the law doesn’t even require a judge to swear in a U.S. President; anyone who can legally attest to an oath or affirmation can certify the transfer of Presidential power — though only one U.S. President has been sworn in by someone other than a judge.
WHO WAS THE ONLY U.S. PRESIDENT NOT SWORN INTO OFFICE BY A JUDGE?
Who was the only U.S. President sworn into office by a legal officiant other than a judge — a distinctly non-traditional but perfectly legal transfer of power under the U.S. Constitution?
President Calvin Coolidge was sworn into office on Aug. 3, 1923 by his father, John C. Coolidge, a notary public. Then-Vice President Calvin Coolidge was visiting his father’s home in Plymouth, Vermont when he learned of President Warren G. Harding’s death. Calvin Coolidge simply allowed his dad the honor of swearing him into office, post haste. In fact, the ceremony took place at 2:47 in the morning and then, following the administration of the oath, President Coolidge went back to bed.
For the sake of appearances, Coolidge retook the oath the next day, with the Chief Justice of the Washington, DC District Court serving as the officiant. This itself is still a little odd, as the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court usually does the swearing-in honors. In fact, of the 68 of U.S. Presidential inaugurations ever held, 61 have been performed by the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Of the remaining seven inaugurations, one was performed by an Associate Supreme Court Justice, three were performed by federal judges, two by states judges (both from New York) and, as mentioned above, one Presidential inauguration was performed by a notary public. For his second term, Coolidge was sworn in by both the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and a former U.S. President, as William Howard Taft (who became Chief Justice after his term as President) was his officiant. Herbert Hoover is the only other U.S. President sworn in by a former Commander in Chief, as Taft administered the oath to him as well.
Moreover, all two-term U.S. Presidents — except one — were sworn in by a Chief Justice at least once. George Washington was first sworn in by the Chancellor of New York (who was the head judge for the Court of Chancery) and for his second term by Associate Supreme Court Justice William Cushing. Former federal judge Sarah T. Hughes is to date the only woman ever to swear a President into office, as she administered the oath to Lyndon B. Johnson aboard Air Force One following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.
That’s not just some auspicious and officious oath-taking; it’s a swear-worthy swath of Presidential Geek Trivia.
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