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Where Does The Oath Of Office Come From?

Every incoming president back to George Washington has spoken the 37 words in the oath of 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."

But where does the oath come from?

Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the National Archives Experience, says, "If I went up to 12 people on the street and said, 'Where would you find the instructions for the oath of office for the president of the United States?' I doubt that many of them would tell me, "It's actually written into the Constitution.'"

For a document that lays out general principles and avoids getting into too much detail — which is why Pinkert says we've been able to argue about it ever since — the oath is the one section that's really specific.

"It's the only sentence in quotes in the entire Constitution," Pinkert tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

Although the oath is short, it took several takes for the founding fathers to get the final wording down. Delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 struggled to come to terms with what the new office of the president of the United States actually meant, because there weren't a lot of precedents to go by.

Pinkert points to original documents displayed at the archives; they shine a light on what delegates might have been thinking as they crafted the oath. For example, the first printed copy of the draft Constitution contains suggested revisions by Washington and others.

"Among those changes," Pinkert says, "is to cut out the word 'judgment' ... and replace it with the word 'abilities,'" which was later shortened to "ability."

This ensures that the Constitution is supreme and that the president executes laws accordingly.

That the president is treated as a citizen under the Constitution rather than as the supreme authority of the land says something special about the nature of the U.S. government and the foresight of the founding fathers, Pinkert says.

Their ideas on presidential power are reinforced when the oath is publicly administered every four years, even when a president is re-elected.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The next president starts his job with the same words that President Bush did, the same words spoken by every president.

President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt...

President HARRY S. TRUMAN: I, Harry S Truman, do solemnly swear...

President RICHARD M. NIXON: I, Richard Milhous Nixon, do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the office...

President RONALD REAGAN: The office of president of the United States.

President ROOSEVELT: I will to the best of my ability...

President TRUMAN: Preserve, protect, and defend...

President NIXON: And defend the Constitution of the United States...

President REAGAN: So help me God.

MONTAGNE: Ronald Reagan and other presidents took the oath that Barack Obama will soon repeat.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This morning we'll find a deeper meaning in words that seem like a simple formality.

Mr. MARVIN PINKERT (Executive Director, National Archives Experience): If I went up to 12 people on the street and said, where would you find the instructions for the oath of office? I doubt that many of them would tell me it's actually written into the Constitution.

INSKEEP: But it is. Marvin Pinkert of the National Archives works in a building that holds the original Constitution. He's wearing a red tie decorated with the Constitution's handwritten opening words, "We the people." It's a short document, mostly giving broad principles, except for that oath.

This is the one thing that's really specific...

Mr. PINKERT: It's the only sentence in quotes in the entire Constitution.

INSKEEP: And you would understand why those exact words matter when you learn how they were edited. Marvin Pinkert shows us how, by leading us to documents in a glass display case.

Mr. PINKERT: So let's start with the first document, which is the first printed draft of the Constitution. At this point, the Constitutional Convention starts to meet in mid-May.

INSKEEP: 1787?

Mr. PINKERT: 1787. They've gone through all the big political issues about creating a House of Representatives in small states and big states, and how they're going to orient themselves in the separation of powers. But there are a lot of details missing. And so what you're looking at here is George Washington's working copy of this draft Constitution, and you can see that there's a piece of the oath of office - we've blown it up here.

INSKEEP: I, blank. Where's it go from there?

Mr. PINKERT: Solemnly swear or affirm that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States. That's the whole oath at the time. You can see where Washington has written in very small print a change. George Mason and James Madison have proposed to make a change to the document that adds this phrase about defending the Constitution, so that in effect the president is taking an oath of subordination.

INSKEEP: To the law?

Mr. PINKERT: To the Constitution of the United States.

INSKEEP: Which is significant, I suppose, because in future generations presidents will have this dilemma. Do I do what I think is best for the country or do I follow the law, even if I don't think that's best for the country? Do I break the law? There are presidents constantly wrestling with that dilemma.

Mr. PINKERT: And I suspect that that's what leads to the next change in the document. What you're looking at here is from the last few days of the Constitutional Convention. There was a committee of revision and style that has made a few suggestions for changes. And among those changes is to cut out the word "judgment" and replace it with the word "abilities." So the president no longer is exercising his best judgment, but instead to the best of his abilities...

INSKEEP: Is following?

Mr. PINKERT: Is following the Constitution. The last set of changes will have to go where the final Constitution is.

INSKEEP: Which we can do down the hall at the National Archives. In a cavernous room, a kind of civic temple, we find the Constitution itself under glass. The ornate handwriting shows a few final tweaks, for example the phrase "and power is dropped."

Mr. PINKERT: I can't honestly tell you how those last changes took place, but this is the final step of getting the 37 words of the oath.

INSKEEP: Now that is not precisely what modern presidents have said, is it?

Mr. PINKERT: Modern presidents have generally added the phrase, so help me God. But that is not in the Constitution.

INSKEEP: Oh, is it not known where the so help me God began, which president might have picked it up along the way?

Mr. PINKERT: I don't know. There are people who will tell you it was said by Washington, and then there are people who say it wasn't said by Washington. Having no tape, I have no ability...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PINKERT: To determine that.

INSKEEP: Well, thanks very much for sharing these documents with us.

Mr. PINKERT: My pleasure.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Of course, there will be tape next week. Marvin Pinkert is executive director of the National Archives Experience. And you can see one of those papers we talked about at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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