Will Anyone Dare Place Their Hand on the Constitution Instead of the Bible?

With the first electoral event of the 2016 presidential race behind us (with Ted Cruz winning for the Republicans and Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton emerging in a “virtual tie”), voters may finally be starting to imagine (and relish or dread, depending on one’s political bent) just who’ll be sworn into the highest office of the land on January 20, 2017. What inaugural traditions will he or she follow and which might the president-elect reject?

Our first president, George Washington, took his oath in New York City where the Washingtons began the “grand experiment:” a government of, by, and for the people. The Capitol and the White House had not yet been constructed. According to the U.S. Constitution, presidents have to swear or affirm the following: “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.” That’s really all it says in the Constitution. But through the years, the words “So help me God” have been added.

It’s been suggested that George Washington said, “So help me God.” Nothing supports such an assertion, and most historians call the story a myth. Historical facts support the theory that Washington was not a religious man. But all historians agree that he brought dignity as well as a democratic touch to the role of president that successors have embraced.

Our second president, John Adams, took his oath of office at Congress Hall in Philadelphia on March 4, 1797. Thomas Jefferson, the first to take his oath in the new capital of Washington, DC, was the only president to walk to his inauguration. The inauguration and administration of our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, differed from the era of our founding fathers; during his inauguration, thousands of ordinary people swarmed to the Capital City. Their exuberance and rowdy behavior shocked the old guard who remembered days of powdered wigs and decorum. But Jackson was known as a “man of the people,” neither rich nor socially connected.

While Jackson was a different kind of man, his election and inauguration showcased the peaceful transition of power that is the hallmark of all inaugurations in the United States. But inaugurations weren’t all congratulations and high-sounding words. In 1857, Franklin Pierce, our fourteenth president, returned to the White House the night after his inauguration to find no servants available. He groped his way upstairs to find the family rooms in disorder. Our sixteenth and next log-cabin-president after Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, had to sneak into the nation’s capital the day before his inauguration because there had been open threats on his life. In 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes encountered a different kind of problem. He took his oath of office in the Red Room of the White House because it was a Sunday and because the electoral vote was disputed.

Much that is customary in today’s inaugural ceremonies have been added by various presidents and are now traditional—but not constitutional. For his second-term oath, President Obama swore on two separate Bibles— one that had belonged to Abraham Lincoln and the other to Martin Luther King Jr., although nothing in the Constitution says anything about swearing or affirming with a hand on a holy book. In fact, John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, took his oath of office with his hand resting on a book of law. After that, someone substituted with a bible.

One inauguration day tradition goes back to the nineteenth century: lunch in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol attended by the new president, Supreme Court justices, and many Congressional leaders. A modern twist to presidential inaugurations was added by President Jimmy Carter; he and Rosalind left their presidential limousine and walked to the White House. After that, all successive presidents—Reagan, Bush one and two, as well as Clinton—and their spouses have followed suit and walked for blocks or a mile or so. Barack and Michelle Obama did the same.

Can you imagine a President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump hoofing it to the White House or would they stay in the limo? One can easily see Bernie and his wife Jane O’Meara Sanders or Hillary and her husband Bill Clinton walking to work the first day. What about the swearing-in? Will anyone dare place their hand on the Constitution rather than the Bible? How about on Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason?