So, if you blinked yesterday, you probably missed the ginormous fuss over President Obama’s do-over of the oath of office. Apparently, in the rush to conciliate people who didn’t realize that he became president automatically at noon while the quartet was-or-wasn’t playing, the Obama family didn’t have time to dig their Bible out of their luggage, and Justice Roberts didn’t bring one. This, naturally, was Really Big News and led to a raft of speculations that he wasn’t really President, because, ZOMG, Bible! (naturally, there has been frantic activity on the Wikipedia entry dealing with this question).
Most of what you’ve probably read this week is wrong. So, a few things you may not have heard:
So the Bible? Wasn’t ever Lincoln’s Bible. Lincoln (the parallels here just pile up, don’t they?) had just arrived in Washington, and his Bible was in with his luggage. And the Justice who gave him the oath of office wasn’t, another parallel, a fan:
Carl Schurz, another political friend, watched the proceedings intently. "I saw Lincoln step forward to the desk upon which the Bible lay — his rugged face, appearing above all those surrounding him, calm and sad."
…As for 83-year-old Roger Taney, he said, "I saw the withered form of Chief Justice Taney, the author of the famous Dred Scott decision, that judicial compend of the doctrine of slavery, administer the oath of office to the first President elected on a distinct anti-slavery platform." Taney died in office three years later, and Lincoln filled the position with abolitionist Salmon Chase.
Taney, of course, was the Justice who wrote these words in the Dred Scott decision which denied citizenship to Americans of African descent (he claimed in the decision to only be talking about slaves and descendants of slaves, but pointed out that there were so few free black people that they didn’t matter):
They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic whenever a profit could be made by it. This opinion was at that time fixed and universal in the civilized portion of the white race. It was regarded as an axiom in morals as well as in politics which no one thought of disputing or supposed to be open to dispute, and men in every grade and position in society daily and habitually acted upon it in their private pursuits, as well as in matters of public concern, without doubting for a moment the correctness of this opinion.
Lincoln chose not to use that Bible for his second inauguration. The second presidential oath taken on it was Barack Obama’s. With any luck at all, Taney was watching.
Also, the Bible thing? Not in the Constitution.
Obama was not the first president to get a do-over:
Obama is the seventh president to have restated his oath of office. Two, Chester Arthur and Calvin Coolidge, did so after their presidents died abruptly, and four did so because Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday.
Arthur took the oath for the first time at his Lexington Ave. home in New York in the wee hours of Sept. 20, 1881, following the death of President James Garfield, who had been wounded by an assassin’s bullet in July. Arthur restated the oath at the U.S. Capitol two days later.
Coolidge’s repetition of the oath followed a similar course. He took the oath for the first time at 2:47 a.m. on Aug. 2, 1923, after being roused from sleep following the death of Warren Harding…
Coolidge had a Bible on the table before which he stood while taking the oath, but did not lay his hand upon it "as it is not the practice in Vermont or Massachusetts to use a Bible in connection with the administration of an oath," he said. Coolidge was at his family homestead in Vermont at the time.
Questions were later raised about the propriety of his being sworn-in by his father, a notary public, leading a federal judge to readminister the oath two weeks later.
The four presidents who restated their oaths of office publicly because Inauguration Day fell on a Sunday are: Rutherford B. Hayes; Woodrow Wilson; Dwight Eisenhower; and Ronald Reagan in 1985.
Although until the do-over, he was only the second president to have messed up the oath because the Justice giving it screwed up:
Chief Justice William Taft introduced a new word into the oath when he swore in President Herbert Hoover in 1929, promising to "preserve, maintain and defend the Constitution", instead of "preserve, protect and defend".
Taft was, of course, a former Republican president (and the progenitor of a current Republican dynasty). Hoover did not take a do-over. So, by the lights of our friends on the fringe, the only illegitimate president in history was that nice man whose impressive death-grip on conservative principles led us into the promised land of, um, the Great Depression. A great hero of theirs. Dommage.
Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!"
And as we sow, so shall we reap. Not worried, really.
Happy new president, and happy Friday.
*This, from the baby-faced Republican operative who blogs for the Christian Science Monitor, pretty much covers the major talking points