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The Oath of Office and Its Constitutional Context

Jim Leach, Chairman, National Endowment for the Humanities

Comments Prepared for Delivery Swearing-in Ceremony for the Hon. Rush Holt, Library of Congress Washington , DC
United States

January 3, 2013


As head of a non-partisan institution, I am obligated to refrain from commenting on our host’s voting record but I can confirm that Rush is one of the most decent and thoughtful Members with whom I had the privilege to serve.  He brings to the House an impressive background as an academic, a background that sets him apart from so many others in today’s politics but is shared with several of our most distinguished founders.  Indeed, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence from the district Rush represents, John Witherspoon, was a theologian and president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).  Similarly, Jefferson and Franklin were inventors and scientists who both founded great universities – the University of Virginia and the University of Pennsylvania.   

Moral philosophers as well as political activists, the founders affirmed a trinity of natural rights – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – precepts synthesized from two Enlightenment thinkers, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui.  These natural rights adherents applied to political theory an analytic framework inspired by the trinity of natural laws laid out by Sir Isaac Newton in the natural sciences.  Just as Newton had studied the geophysical nature of motion, the founders dwelled on the nature as well as the rights of man.  Hence, to protect against abusive authority characteristic of feudal hierarchies they established a Constitutional framework designed to divide rather than concentrate power.  They understood, as Madison pointed out in Federalist No. 55, that just “as there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.  Republican governance presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.”

A few minutes ago Princeton’s distinguished contemporary philosopher, Anthony Appiah, illustrated the interest of our Founders in human nature with a reference to a social phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Ben Franklin effect.  Based on an anecdote about his borrowing of a book from a fellow delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Franklin counter-intuitively suggested that individuals may be more prone to listen to and support the views of someone for whom they have done a favor rather than an individual to whom they are indebted.

In a parallel observation on human nature, I want to report on a difference between natural law and social behavior that I observed some years ago on the House floor.  You may recall that Newton’s third law of motion is that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  Human nature operates differently.  Watching one afternoon the reaction of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle to a blistering partisan critique by the leader of my party, it became clear to me that in human dynamics, unlike natural laws of physics, reaction can sometimes be greater than action.

Words matter.  When individuals, groups or nations are described in a pejorative manner, divisive feelings are stoked.  The likelihood is that rhetorical reactions with potential actionable dimensions will escalate.  In this era of over-reaction, this observation has relevance at the dinner table, in local communities, national politics, and, most consequentially, international relations.  It is no accident that geostrategic thinkers have for generations raised the issue of “face” and warn against backing adversaries into a corner where mutual accommodation becomes impossible.  

In today’s political context, let me mention three particularly troubling words – “fascism,” “communism,” and “secession.”  Critics used to glibly refer to our former President, George W. Bush, as a fascist.  Our current President, Barack Obama, has been called a fascist and a communist, sometimes at the same time.  And since this past fall’s election, hundreds of thousands of Americans have signed petitions sent to the White House suggesting that secession may be a legitimate option.  What’s wrong with this kind of political hyperbole?  Plenty.  These are words that historically have contained warring implications.  They infuse political discourse with “enemy” as opposed to “rival” attitudes.  Yet the last thing America needs is to make war on itself.     

Which brings me to the oath of office and its Constitutional context.  In the oaths taken by Professor Appiah’s Parliamentary ancestors in Great Britain, allegiance to the crown was affirmed.  Today the avowed allegiance is “to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors, according to law.”  The oath Members of Congress will take this afternoon is of a very different nature.  It is to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  What does allegiance to the Constitution rather than a head of a state entail?

The Constitution establishes a sovereign basis for the rule of law in a governing arrangement where power is divided and individual rights enumerated.  These enumerated rights were not all-encompassing at the beginning of the Republic.  People of color, those without property, and women were left out.  It took most of a century to rectify the Constitution’s sanctioning of slavery and most of another one to make citizenship rights meaningful for all.  When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation seven score, ten years, and two days ago, his clear intent was to make America truer to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence.  Trumpeted in the midst of war, the President also conceived and advanced the Proclamation for practical political advantage.  He wanted to rally abolitionist critics who had been pressing him to be more definitive about the values for which the Union stood.  And he wanted to keep Britain and France, which had already abolished slavery, from supporting the Confederacy.

I mention the international dimension of the Emancipation Proclamation because the implicit assumption of the Founders was that the American model of Constitutional governance was designed to be the most effective as well as humane manner of organizing public decision-making ever created.  Today we are challenged by legitimate concerns about national security, fiscal imbalance, and how best to incentivize job creation.  These challenges are compounded by political ruptures that make decision-making based on mutual respect irascibly difficult.  Symbolized by the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the public is now on an almost daily basis using the word “dysfunctional” to describe Washington governance.  The world is watching.

Unless we get our politics in order, America’s global leadership will be jeopardized.  The perceived magic of the American way could unravel before our eyes. 

Politics has high and low moments.  Sometimes it brings out the better angels of our nature; sometimes baser instincts. 

These are contentious times but we have had testier moments in our history. The first decade of the nineteenth century saw Thomas Jefferson hire a journalist who described his Presidential opponent, John Adams, as a “hermaphrodite.”  Four years later our greatest Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, was shot dead in a duel with the Vice President of the United States, Aaron Burr, the triggering cause being Hamilton’s assertion that Burr was “despicable.”  And in the decade preceding the Civil War, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina strode onto the Senate floor where he caned almost to death Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist from Massachusetts, for describing a Senator who happened to be Brooks’s uncle as a “pimp” for slavery.

Democracy requires civil discourse and civil manners.  But civility itself is not about staid politeness.  Spirited advocacy energizes deliberations on public policy.  Without argumentation dogmatism, even tyranny, may reign.  Listening is as important as speaking.  Everybody can learn from somebody else.  Seldom, after all, is there only one proper path determinable by one individual or one political party.  Public decision-making does not lend itself to certitude.  That is why humility is a valued character trait and why partisan intransigence is rarely a worthy strategy in a Constitutional democracy.      

The taking of an oath “to support and defend the Constitution” and “faithfully discharge the duties” of office is to recognize that process is our most important product.  Government of, by, and for the people requires a respectful give and take with an understanding that we are all connected and rely on each other.  Dysfunctionality, by contrast, is the power of negation. It jeopardizes the national interest.

As Lincoln warned in words borrowed from Scripture, a house divided cannot stand.