This was a week of firsts. It was the first full week of 2019. It was the first time I took the oath of office in the Illinois Senate Chamber, or the Illinois State Capitol building for that matter. It was the first time I voted on legislation as your State Senator in the 45th District.
As I look back on the week, I started thinking about oaths. Why do we swear an oath? How did the practice start? Why do some elected officials swear on a Bible and others don’t?
It turns out swearing an oath dates back to biblical times, ancient times if you will. In ancient times there wasn’t any such thing as a polygraph test. There wasn’t any DNA testing or forensics. The best way to guarantee, in the minds of the ancients, honest answers was to have them swear that they were telling the truth or God would punish them.
It was an exercise of both religious faith and also fear whatever one believes about religion or about our respective God it was effective at securing the truth and commitment from those taking the oath.
The first historical record of an oath is found in the book of Genesis, and it is made by God himself. In the account of the Great Flood, God swears an oath to “never again curse the ground (Gen. 8:21).”
As it turns out, swearing an oath on the Bible or any other text is not a constitutional requirement at the federal or state level. Columnist Hannah Rosefield wrote an article for The New Yorker called, “A Brief History of Oaths and Books.”
Rosefield wrote the column to explore how former US Ambassador Suzi Levine swore her oath of office on an Amazon Kindle which was opened to the US Constitution. Rosefield wrote, “There is no constitutional requirement for any federal official—firefighter, ambassador, or President—to take the oath of office over a particular text or, in fact, over any text at all.”
Rosefield continued to explain that the practice of swearing an oath on a book in Western civilization began in England during the 9th century. She wrote, “in the absence of a structured royal government, certain transactions were conducted at the altar, the participants swearing on a gospel book…” She later explained that the practice was formally adopted by English courts in the 12th century and eventually was extended from oaths taken in courts to oaths of office.
Here’s an interesting fact for you. Not every President has sworn the oath of office on the Bible. Presidents John Quincy Adams and Franklin Pierce swore their oaths of office on law books. President Lyndon Johnson swore his first oath of office on Air Force One with his left hand on a Catholic missal. President Theodore Roosevelt did not swear on any book.
The state of Illinois has had four different oaths of office in the last 200 years. A unique twist was added to the oath of office in 1848 saying, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm, as the case may be) that I have not fought a duel, nor sent or accepted a challenge to fight a duel, the probable issue of which might have been the death of either party, nor been a second to either party, nor in any manner aided or assisted in such duel.”
A few years later, Illinois went on to inaugurate a governor in 1857 who had accepted a challenge for a duel. As a member of Congress, William Henry Bissell was challenged to a duel for accusing some Southern members of planning secession. His challenger was future President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.
The Illinois Constitution of 1870 included a separate oath for members of the General Assembly. That oath was different than the Governor’s oath because it included anti-bribery language, saying, “I have not knowingly or intentionally paid or contributed anything, or made any promise in the nature of a bribe to directly or indirectly influence any vote at the election at which I was chosen to fill the said office, and have not accepted, nor will I accept or receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing from any corporation, company or person for any vote or influence I may give or withhold on any bill, resolution or appropriation, or for any other official act.”
I’m sure we can all think of additional things our elected officials should swear to when they take the oath of office. While some may disagree over religious references or what books are used in the ceremony, I’m convinced one of the reasons we still swear oaths is because making that promise matters. Not only is it important to our constituents, it very well could fundamentally change how elected officials behave. I know it matters to me.
Governor-elect Pritzker will be sworn in as Governor on Monday, January 14. He and the other statewide constitutional officers will be swearing to “faithfully discharge the duties” of their offices. Let’s hold them to it.
As always, if you have any additional thoughts or ideas, you can reach me or Glenda at 815-284-0045 or visit my website at www.senatorstewart.com and use the form to send me an email.