When the First Congress met in New York City in March of 1789, they faced an enormous undertaking. The new Constitution had just been ratified, and Congress was the first part of the new federal government to meet and take shape. Ahead of them lay numerous important and urgent tasks: they needed to create the Treasury, War, and Foreign Affairs departments; the federal judiciary; and a system of taxation and collection. They also needed to determine patent and copyright laws, rules for naturalization, the location of a new capital city, administration of the census, amendments to the Constitution, and much more.
But before the members of Congress could get to all of this pressing business, there was something more important they needed to do–so important that it was the first bill introduced in the House of Representatives, and the first act signed into law by President George Washington.
“An Act to Regulate the Time and Manner of Administering Certain Oaths” was signed into law on June 1, 1789. It prescribed the text of and procedure for the administration of the oath of office.
The act mandated that the oath be administered in the following form: “I, A.B. do solemnly swear or affirm (as the case may be) that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” This simple, straightforward oath fulfilled the constitutional requirement outlined in Article VI, clause 3:
The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution…
Although today it might seem fundamental to require an oath prior to the assumption of public office, the Founders didn’t all agree on the need. At the Constitutional Convention, Delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania said of oaths, “A good government did not need them and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported.”
The Founders also debated who should take the oath, and came down with a firm statement of federal supremacy. The Constitution required not just federal officers to take the oath to support the Constitution, but also state officials.
This oath remained intact until the Civil War. In 1862, concerns about sabotage by southern sympathizers compelled Congress to rewrite the oath of office in an attempt to keep disloyal persons out of public office. In a law that became known as the Iron Clad Test Oath, Congress compelled new officials to swear not only that they would support the Constitution in the future, but also that they had in the past. Although originally exempted, members of Congress began taking the new oath in 1864.
After the end of the Civil War in 1865, there were almost immediate problems in Congress when former Confederate states returned to the Union. Many of the new members had served the Confederacy and could not take the Iron Clad Test Oath in good faith. In 1868, as the nation was trying to come back together, the law was changed to allow former Confederates to skip the first part of the oath which verified previous loyalty.
In 1884, the Iron Clad Test Oath was repealed. The second part of the oath, which contained a promise of faithful support of the Constitution in the future, remained. This is the oath that federal and state officials take today.
Share these documents with your students, and use these questions to start a class discussion about oaths of office:
- Before sharing the documents, ask your students to hypothesize about the subject of the very first act of Congress in 1789. To get them thinking about the kind of business Congress had to do, share some examples from the first paragraph above.
- What is an oath of office? Why do public officials take it?
- Why would an oath of office act be the first act of Congress?
- What prompted the change to the oath in 1862? Direct students to research examples of suspected sabotage by public officials from the Civil War.
- What do students think of the current oath? Would they change it? How? Why?
The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th Anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents from this formative time via Tumblr, Twitter, and Education Updates. Follow #Congress225 for more documents you can use in your classroom.
You can see Daniel Inouye’s oath of office and others on display now in “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC.