Stavney: What is an oath?
What is an oath? What does it pledge? Whose idea were oaths anyhow?
So why, in our system of many-layered governance with counter-balanced branches and dispersed powers, do local officials swear an oath to the United States Constitution? The very idea of an oath was a topic of much disagreement during the framing of the Constitution, not least because colonial officials were forced to swear allegiance to the British King and to God of the established Church of England.
Many municipalities held local elections the first week of April across Northwest Colorado. The following week newly elected citizens stood, raised their right hand in front of a witness (or computer screen this year), and recited an oath, crossing an invisible threshold to become officially seated.
The town of Eagle’s oath is 57 words:
I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution and laws of the United States, the Constitution and laws of the State of Colorado, and the Ordinances and Codes of the town of Eagle, and that I will faithfully perform all duties of the office of Town Trustee, upon which I am about to enter.
The pledge above follows a common template that creates a relationship between the elected and key legal documents. The town of Fraser’s oath condenses the oath to 46 words, adding “or affirm,” and “all” to duties. The town of Grand Lake’s oath is nearly twice as long with 84 words. It adds two clauses, “that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely and without any mental reservations or purpose of evasion.” Could be a story there.
Those taking an oath this month take note that an oath is not a pledge of loyalty to a person “further up” the structure. It does impart an obligation to the documents which form the “rule of law.” That commitment shouldn’t be skipped over when it seems inconvenient or expedient. These local oaths derive from the U.S. Constitution (Article VI, Clause 3) which states:
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; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.
There it is. The oath trickles down through the states to local officials. The Colorado legislature updated guidance on oaths in 2018. Oaths evolve.
During the Civil War, Congressional oaths included “loyalty” to the Union — in other words, to the idea of a singular nation. That reference to loyalty was later dropped with the Congressional oath being updated a handful of times until 1966 when language, much like the town of Grand Lake’s oath, was added, ”taking this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…” and, pointedly, adding in at the end, “so help me God” (Congress added the God part, not Grand Lake). That version also introduced the idea of “true faith” as well as protecting against enemies. This was the time of the Cold War, spies, and McCarthyism during which time many clubs had oaths.
Some oaths today still require even more commitment than a pledge to uphold documents.Dwight Henninger, the chief of Police in Vail and vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police emailed the IACP Law Enforcement Oath of Honor which states:
On my honor, I will never betray my badge, my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always uphold the constitution, my community and the agency I serve.
There are more commitments packed in that oath. As employees acting as public servants this is even a higher bar of integrity than the oath of their elected employers. Chief Henninger said that whenever a new officer is sworn in, all officers restate the oath again as a group. That is powerful.
So why a pledge mostly to documents? Essentially an oath is a pledge to abide by and uphold the law. This fealty to abide in “the rule of law” through various documents is a foundation of democracy and reflects what differentiates us from government based primarily upon amassing and retaining power through pledges of loyalty, manipulation, force or corrupt practices — what most of us consider “politics.” An oath represents a commitment above and beyond politics and power to abide in the law, and by extension in the practiced norms of public processes.
For being few in words, there is a lot packed into commitments made through an oath. As we seem increasingly willing to accept loyalty as a test for our elected leaders, or just accept hyper-partisan politics as business-as-usual, the core tenants of an oath may be worth contemplating.
Jon Stavney is the executive director of the District 12 Northwest Colorado Council of Governments who has served as the mayor and town manager of Eagle. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org