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Against all enemies
The oath that binds
At inauguration, each American president swears: “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."
On entering Congress, new senators and representatives swear: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
Members of the armed services swear: “I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
We’ve been doing this in America long enough that it seems normal. But there is something strange about it. The men and women taking the oaths are promising to defend not their country but a piece of paper. Perhaps this isn’t so unusual for the president and members of Congress, given that they are functionaries of the government created by that piece of paper. But did the hundreds of thousands of Americans who died in the country’s wars make the ultimate sacrifice for the four thousand words James Madison and colleagues cobbled together in the summer of 1787? Really?
No, not really—or rather, not consistently. The first oath sworn by American soldiers was to the Continental Army in 1775. “I do bind myself to conform, in all instances, to such rules and regulations as are, or shall be, established for the government of the said Army,” George Washington’s men affirmed. They didn’t swear to defend the Constitution, which wouldn’t be written until a dozen years later. Nor did they swear to defend the United States of America, which wouldn't be declared independent for another year.
The oath changed upon independence. “I swear to be true to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies or opposers whatsoever,” the version adopted in September 1776 said. Now country entered the language of the contract, although it was a pluralistic country, requiring “them” and “their” as pronouns. A subsequent version listed the thirteen states by name and described Massachusetts, Virginia, New York and the others as “free, independent, and sovereign states.”
Not until 1789, after the Constitution was ratified, did that document appear in the oath. The first Congress under the Constitution approved a two-part formula for the soldiers. “I do solemnly swear that I will support the constitution of the United States,” said the first part. The second added, “I do solemnly swear to bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully, against all their enemies and opposers whatsoever.”
During the Civil War, the oath became more complicated. Soldiers still swore to support the Constitution: “To the best of my ability, I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” But a clause was added to reflect the conflict then underway: “. . . against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” And the oathtaker was required to attest that he had not been a rebel: “I have never borne arms against the United States. . . . I have not yielded voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power, or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto.”
In 1884, the disclaimer was dropped, the Civil War being a generation in the past and amnesty having been granted to most former Confederates. But the “foreign and domestic” reference to enemies remained, as it remains in the present version, adopted in 1959.
The reworkings of the soldiers’ oath reflects a problem peculiar to republics. What is it that soldiers—and officeholders—are expected to defend? In most pre-republican polities, soldiers swore loyalty to persons, typically monarchs. Defending a king or queen is straightforward. But no person in a republic so embodies the nation. And when the republic is a confederation, as during the American Revolution, the entity being defended is even more nebulous.
A constitution, by contrast, is something easy to identify. It’s not always easy to interpret—witness the Civil War. And interpretations change over time. Racial segregation was constitutional from 1896 until past the middle of the twentieth century. Presumably soldiers were expected to defend Jim Crow until they weren't. And once they weren't, they were expected to attack that system. Dwight Eisenhower employed the 101st Airborne to enforce desegregation in Little Rock in 1957.
What soldiers and officeholders are swearing to defend is the set of beliefs about republican government articulated by the Constitution. This is quite striking, given that the First Amendment, part of that very Constitution, guarantees their freedom to disagree and even publicly dispute those beliefs. America has no established religion. Instead it has a Constitution, to which millions of people have sworn to become martyrs if necessary.
This is partly the result of clever political practice. Supporters of the Constitution in the ratification debate held the balance of power in the first Congress. It suited their purposes to write fealty to the Constitution into the oaths of office and enlistment.
The importance of the Constitution in national ideology also reflects the absence of plausible alternatives. Other countries demand loyalty to a fatherland or motherland. That didn't work for a nation composed so largely of immigrants from other countries. Or for a nation that was rapidly seizing the fatherlands and motherlands of the indigenous peoples of North America.
Other countries link loyalty to nationhood, in the sense of a people sharing a common history, culture, language, religion and the like. No such commonality has broadly existed in America.
So if not land and not people, what was left to revere? Freedom? Not conveniently in a system that allowed slavery for its first several decades. Equality? Again that pesky peculiar institution, and the abiding inequality that results from a political economy based on capitalism. Peace? Awkward for soldiers. Prosperity? It has its ups and downs. The flag? It kept changing, adding stars for the first dozen decades, by the end of which it had its own pledge.
But the Constitution endures. Or will if everyone swears to defend it. And lives up to the oath.