Oath of Office – What Does It Really Mean – A Historical Synopsis

By: Aaron Joseph. How solemn a ritual is it to take the oath of office of president, what does it signify, and why is it necessary? The oath of office of the President of the United States is an oath or affirmation required by the United States Constitution before the President begins the execution of his term in office. The wording is specified in Article Two of the Constitution. “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.” Legally however no oath is necessary to become president.

According to the Twentieth Amendment of the constitution, the president’s term of office begins at noon on January 20 of the year following the election. This date, known as Inauguration Day, marks the beginning of the four-year terms of both the president and the vice president. Before executing the powers of the office however, a president is constitutionally required to take the presidential oath. Although no law requires that any specific person administer the oath of office, presidents are traditionally sworn in by the Chief Justice of the United States.

All incumbent Presidents elected to a second or subsequent term have been re-inaugurated and have re-taken the oath of office at the beginning of their new term, although it is technically not necessary for an incumbent President to take the oath again.

President Obama takes two oaths of office for his second term. One yesterday on January 20th, and one publicly today. Is one of them in vain? This is not a new question, but rather a reoccurring phenomenon.

Presidents Chester A. Arthur in 1881, and Calvin Coolidge in 1923, took their first oath in their residences in the middle of the night, immediately upon being notified of the death of a predecessor. (James A. Garfield and Warren G. Harding, respectively). They later retook the oath after returning to Washington. In the case of Coolidge, there was an additional doubt whether an oath administered by a public notary (Coolidge’s father) was valid.

Five presidents took a private oath when Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday, and then followed with a second oath during the public ceremony the next day. Rutherford B. Hayes in 1877 (who actually took the private oath on March 3, a Saturday, one day before his term started); Woodrow Wilson in 1917; Dwight Eisenhower in 1957; Ronald Reagan in 1985; and Barack Obama in 2013.

Although it is arguably acceptable to retake the oath of office for a second time although not required by any law, over time, many have suggested that taking two oaths for the same second term seems like a farce, if not cheapening the value of the oath.

The following is a reflection of the Oaths of office taken by vice-presidents when ascending to the office of presidency upon succeeding sitting president.

William Henry Harrison was the ninth President of the United States, and the first president to die in office. He was 68 years old when inaugurated, and the oldest president to take office until Ronald Reagan in 198. Harrison died on April 4, 1841, his 32nd day in office of complications from pneumonia, serving the shortest tenure in United States presidential history.

At the time of President Harrison’s death, there was disagreement whether the vice president would become President or merely an Acting President. Further, the Constitution did not stipulate whether the vice president could serve the remainder of the president’s term, until the next election, or if emergency elections should be held.

Harrison’s cabinet insisted that Tyler was “Vice President acting as President”. After Chief Justice Roger Taney was consulted they decided that if Tyler took the presidential Oath of Office he would assume the office of President. Tyler obliged and was sworn in on April 6. That May, Congress convened, and passed a resolution that confirmed Tyler in the presidency for the remainder of Harrison’s term. Once established, this precedent of presidential succession remained in effect until the Twenty-fifth Amendment

Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural was on March 4th 1865, a month later he was assassinated. Lincoln died at 7:22 am the next morning, and Vic-President Andrew Johnson’s swearing in occurred between 10 and 11 am with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase presiding in the presence of most of the Cabinet, Johnson’s demeanor was described by the newspapers as “solemn and dignified”.

Judge William Cranch, Chief Judge of the U.S. Circuit Court, administered the executive oath of office to Vice President Millard Fillmore on July 10, 1850 in the Hall of the House of Representatives. President Zachary Taylor who had been sick briefly, had died the day before.

When President Garfield was shot in 1881, Vice-President Arthur was reluctant to be seen to act as President while Garfield lived, and the next two months saw a vacuum in the executive office. On the night of September 19, Arthur learned that Garfield had died, and State Judge John R. Brady of the New York Supreme Court administered the oath of office in Arthur’s home at 2:15 a.m. the following day.

Arriving in Washington on September 22, Arthur repeated the oath of office, this time administered by Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, because of concerns that a state judge may have lacked the authority to administer the presidential oath.

On September 6th, 1901, President McKinley was shot while at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Theodore Roosevelt was on a vacation at Mount Marcy in northeastern New York when a park ranger brought him a telegram informing him that McKinley’s condition had deteriorated, and he was near death. Roosevelt and his family immediately departed for Buffalo. When they reached the nearest train station at North Creek, at 5:22 am on September 14, he received another telegram informing him that McKinley had died a few hours earlier. Roosevelt arrived in Buffalo that afternoon, and was sworn in there as President at 3:30 pm by U.S. District Judge John R. Hazel.

President Harding developed a respiratory illness believed to be pneumonia while on a trip to in San Francisco, on August 2nd, 1923. Unexpectedly, during the evening, Harding shuddered and died suddenly in the middle of conversation with his wife in the hotel’s presidential suite. Naval medical consultants who examined the president in San Francisco concluded he had suffered a heart attack. Vice-President Coolidge was in Vermont visiting his family home, which had neither electricity nor a telephone, when he received word by messenger of Harding’s death. His father, a notary public, administered the oath of office in the family’s parlor by the light of a kerosene lamp at 2:47 am on August 3, 1923.

Coolidge returned to Washington the next day, and was re-sworn in by Justice Adolph A. Hoehling, Jr. of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, as there was some confusion over whether a state notary public had the authority to administer the presidential oath.

Truman had been vice president for only 82 days when President Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. He had just adjourned the session for the day when he received an urgent message to go immediately to the White House. Truman assumed that President Roosevelt wanted to meet with him, but Eleanor Roosevelt informed him that her husband had died after suffering a massive stroke. Chief Justice Harlan F. Stone administering the oath of office to Harry S. Truman in the Cabinet Room of the White House, that same day on April 12, 1945.

At 12:30 pm Central Standard Time on November 22, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas while riding in the presidential motorcade. Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was riding in a car behind the president. From the Presidential airplane, the new President telephoned Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who advised that Mr. Johnson take the Presidential oath of office before the plane left Dallas. President Johnson chose local Judge Sarah T. Hughes, a long-standing friend, to swear him in. At 2:38 p.m., e.s.t., Lyndon Baines Johnson took the oath of office as the 36th President of the United States. The swearing-in ceremony administered by Judge Hughes in an Air Force One conference room represented the first time that a woman administered the presidential oath of office as well as the only time it was conducted on an airplane.

Immediately upon the resignation of President Richard Nixon, Chief Justice Warren Burger swore in Gerald R. Ford as the 38th President of the United States in the White House.

The only exception to the question of an oath in vain for a second term would be the 25th president and 27th president of the United States who was actually the same person President Grover Cleveland. The Honorable Morrison R. Waite, Chief Justice of the United States at the time, administered the oath of office to President Cleveland for his first term in office in 1885, and the Honorable Melville W. Fuller, who had meanwhile become Chief Justice of the United States, administered the oath to President Cleveland for his second term in 1893.

While oaths are uttered, and stacks of bibles are sworn upon, seemingly, no questions regarding its repeated utterance are publicly raised and the pomp and ceremony gloriously go on. May God shed his grace upon all elected officials , and allow for all of us to recognize a successful fulfillment of all oaths of office uttered.

This content, and any other content on TLS, may not be republished or reproduced without prior permission from TLS. Copying or reproducing our content is both against the law and against Halacha. To inquire about using our content, including videos or photos, email us at [email protected].

Stay up to date with our news alerts by following us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

**Click here to join over 20,000 receiving our Whatsapp Status updates!**

**Click here to join the official TLS WhatsApp Community!**

Got a news tip? Email us at [email protected], Text 415-857-2667, or WhatsApp 609-661-8668.


  1. He swore to uphold the Constitution the first term. Now he swore to uphold it again. Did he uphold it? I’m thinking along the lines of illegal immigration and the 2nd amendment. And he still hasn’t proven that he is a US born citizen.

  2. Is the “Oath of Office” (Presidential) a waste of time, and meaningless? Presidents usually don’t follow the words (usually partially…when the wording serves their “political party’s” purpose–either GOP or Democrat. Hence, the words are meaningless. Thus, making a farce of the “Oath…….”.

Comments are closed.