2006-02-23 / Letters to the Editor

The oaths of office

Most Americans are unaware that many of the civil liberties of our young service members are rescinded when they swear or affirm the oath of enlistment for the armed forces of the United States. Established within Public Law 87-751 in 1962 this oath says: “I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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 obey the orders of the president of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” These words constitute a yielding of basic civil liberties by a commitment to defend the very laws that provide them. Required by Congress in April 1790, all officers and enlisted personnel affirmed to the same oath until 1861. With regards to our branches of government, Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution only required affirmation to an oath of office by the president prior to the Civil War. Before April 1861, when President Abraham Lincoln ordered all federal civilian employees within the executive branch to take an expanded oath, members of Congress affirmed a simple 14 word oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.”

Signed into law on July 2, 1862, a war-inspired “Ironclad Test Oath” was required for every person elected or appointed to any office under the government of the United States, excepting the president, who had been previously bound since 1789. At the start of each new Congress, in January of every odd year, all members of the House and one third of the Senate affirm this oath.

Established by the 37th Congress in 1868, the following oath is currently affirmed by all members of our government and military officers: “I, (name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.” This oath of office has withstood the test of time. Although its words have gone through many transformations since 1789, the significance placed upon it by the Founding Fathers has remained the same.

The oath of 1789 merely addressed support of the Constitution. George Washington expressed the notion of support in his farewell address: “The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution, which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.” The words “and defend” were added in 1862, when defense and preservation of the nation became paramount. A passive pledge to support acquired an active requirement to defend against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

The terrorist attack of Sept. 11, 2001 caught America off guard. Our nation’s leaders can no longer simply maintain the status quo. They must identify emerging trends and develop capabilities to counter all threats. It is apparent that our current capability to respond to and, more importantly, prevent a future asymmetric attack is inadequate. Our government must address and be prepared for all adversaries and contingencies. American residents, citizens or not, in direct contact with foreign agents engaged in plotting potential assaults on our freedom are domestic enemies.

This oath, taken by all members of Congress, clearly mandates their support and defense of the Constitution and all of the ideals succinctly highlighted within its preamble. Death negates our constitutional liberties. Congress should stop playing politics and should act instinctively to ensure our national security elements have all tools necessary to defend the Constitution of the United States and its people.

Thomas J. Bembenek, U.S. Navy retired, Jamestown

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