By Congressman Michael Turner
On January 6, 2009, I was sworn in for a fourth term as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. It was a tremendous honor and great privilege to be a part of this very special day. While the oath of office ceremony typically garners little attention, the tradition of swearing-in public servants plays an important role in protecting and upholding the democratic principles upon which our government is built.
The tradition of administering an oath of office has a long and unique history. The U.S. Constitution mandates that all Federal civil servants, including members of Congress, take an oath to faithfully execute their duty to “support and defend” the nation against all enemies. The modern text of this vow has evolved through a series of important historical events.
When the first Congress met in 1789, their very first item of business was to set the following oath into law: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” When the Civil War erupted nearly sixty years later, officials saw these simple words as a potentially valuable tool in their efforts to keep the country united. In 1862, Congress adopted what is known as the Ironclad Test Oath which required all government and military personnel to swear their allegiance to the Union. By doing this, Congress established sworn accountability within all ranks of government during one of the most turbulent times in our nation’s history.
Following the war, a slightly modified version of the Ironclad Test Oath was adopted, and the language from this version is what is presently used: “I 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.”
Interestingly, the President is the only member of the federal government to take a different oath. This oath is perhaps the most widely known in the world since it is taken in front of a global audience on Inauguration Day every four years. The President is customarily sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court using a book of his choosing. These books usually have historic or symbolic importance. For example, President Obama announced that he will be sworn in with the Bible used during Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Other Presidents have used multiple Bibles, a law book, or nothing at all.
Members of Congress are first officially sworn in together on the floor of the House of Representatives, but later have an opportunity to be joined by their family for a ceremonial swearing-in in the office of the Speaker of the House. It was an especially meaningful moment this year, as I was sworn-in with my wife, Lori, and daughters, Jessica and Carolyn, by my side using a Bible that has been in my family for several decades. This Bible is from the pulpit of the former First United Presbyterian Church in Dayton. It was used during both the marriage of my parents and my own baptism. Since then, this Bible has been used during the baptism of my children, as well as my swearing in as Mayor of Dayton.
With a new Congress underway, swearing-in ceremonies stand as a stark reminder of the important tasks that lie ahead. Taking the oath of office is a truly humbling experience, and I look forward to continuing my service to the citizens of Ohio’s Third Congressional District.