32

With the current situation in the USA, I had a look at the wording of the Oath of Office the US president takes, and was surprised to see that the oath is to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution".
Why is the oath worded to the constitution, and not the people of the USA?

From Comments and additional Context for future readers: From @vsz :

Just for context, there have been several leaders (Stalin, Hitler) who based their rule on preserving, protecting, and defending the people (or claiming to), completely disregarding any constitutions and other laws their countries had before.

The current German oath is worded (taking into account people AND law):

I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, promote their welfare, protect them from harm, uphold and defend the Basic Law and the laws of the Federation, perform my duties conscientiously, and do justice to all. So help me God. (Translation from Wikipedia)

That contrast was what actually lead me by being surprised by the lack of "people" in the US-Oath.

Hitler actually had an oath on people AND law as well. There is only so much an oath can actually hold you to!
I am not familiar enough with Russian history to know if Stalin found a loophole or just disregarded his oath, too!

  • 16
    Just for context, there have been several leaders who based their rule on preserving, protecting, and defending the people (or claiming to), completely disregarding any constitutions and other laws their countries had before. – vsz Jun 2 at 7:10
  • The question about Stalin is interesting. Since he was in the military, he possibly took a military oath during the Civil War. Possibly he also could take an oath as a party member (but since he was the member from the times the party was illegal, it is unclear whether he should give any oath at the time). He was also a supreme council member and a prime minister. I do not know whether these positions required an oath in the USSR. – Anixx Jun 2 at 22:19
  • Well, Stalin indeed made a military oath in 1939: upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/07/Kljatva_Stalina.jpg – Anixx Jun 2 at 22:23
97

The Founding Fathers were concerned, among other things, that the Office of the President might become a staging ground for tyrannical rule, either through a popular uprising around the person of the president, or by the president being suborned by foreign nations to subvert the established government. The Constitution contains the checks, balances, and other safeguards that prevent that kind of usurpation of power, so as long as the Constitution stands, the form of government that the Founders were trying to establish stands.

Taking an oath to to 'preserve, protect, and defend' the people of the United States is ambiguous: it lends itself to factions who think they are the only important people — the only people that matter — and could encourage insurrection and a turn towards tyranny. Taking an oath to 'preserve, protect, and defend' the constitution, on the other hand, ostensibly forces the president and other political leaders to preserve and defend the institutions that limit and constrain their own power.

'The People' is a vaguely defined construct. People (as the Founders saw it) are manipulable, fallible, emotionally labile, and — particularly in anonymous groups — given to behaviors that do not suit their best interests or the best interests of the community (see: Federalist #10). 'The Constitution' is a document: stable, structured, disinterested, not invested in any particular person or institution. Stability of democratic institutions is the goal, because only through the stability of democratic institutions can we properly guarantee the rights and security of the people.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Interesting to see where history takes things like the wording of oaths! But yes, coming from that direction, the choice makes sense to me now! – Layna Jun 2 at 10:00
  • 1
    Well, I would've added my own answer but this is pretty solid except for the disparagement of people in the last paragraph. It's the vagueness and the specific historical danger of democracies sliding into mob rule that were the problem, not generalized misanthropy. James K below didn't get your upvotes but your answer would still be better served by noticing that the presidency was given knowingly antidemocratic aspects with the House intended to serve as the People's direct voice in government. – lly Jun 2 at 13:43
  • 8
    @lly: I should point out it's not my disparagement of the people. some of the FF (Madison in particular) had a deep mistrust of the common man. read Federalist #10... – Ted Wrigley Jun 2 at 14:40
  • 2
    @Ily I ysflh James' answer enlightening. I recommend sharing a link to answers whenever you refer to them, because a user can change their display name at any time, making it hard to understand later on down the road. – jpaugh Jun 2 at 18:30
  • 2
    I think the problem is not so much who "the people" are, but what would means to "defend" them. Obviously this means to act in their interests, but which interests are the most important and how to balance conflicts between them is a matter of opinion. When the president swears to uphold and defend the constitution he agrees to support a particular opinion on the subject. – David42 Jun 3 at 13:13
34

Why is the oath worded to the constitution, and not the people of the USA?

The preamble to the Constitution says, in part:

We the People of the United States, [...] do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The use of "ordain" means the Constitution is an order by the "People of the United States".

The president is obligated to "preserve, protect, and defend" (Article II, Section 1) this order and "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" (Article VI) are obligated to support this order.

When these individuals fulfill their obligations, they honor the people. When they fail in their obligations, they disrespect the people.

| improve this answer | |
  • 5
    This is a very good answer, because it focuses on an aspect of the Constitution that is often overlooked - the relationship between the preamble and the rest of the document. The preamble takes the form "Because we have these named aims, we have written the document that follows." This makes it clear that the executive's oath to the Constitution is the mechanism by which they serve the People's aims. – tbrookside Jun 3 at 14:57
  • I don't see how this answers the question at all. If the president takes an oath to execute a particular order of the people, this doesn't mean he's obligated to serve the people, but just this order - the constitution. It does not obligate him to serve the people's best interest in general - unless the constitution would tell him to. But you didn't talk about that aspect. – Hans-Peter Störr Jun 5 at 5:38
  • @Hans-PeterStörr - The president isn't elected to serve the best interests of the people, but, rather, to faithfully execute the office of president. The laws passed by Congress, supposedly, reflect the best interests of the people. That is why members of Congress are bound to support this order (the Constitution), which was mentioned in my answer. This means that no one person can decide what is in the best interests of the people. The question, however, was "Constitution" vs. "people", with no mention of best interests. – Rick Smith Jun 5 at 17:50
  • OK, your comment at least contains some hints answering the question, which was basically "why doesn't the oath say the president should serve the people?" Your answer so far just states the status quo, not the reasons for it. – Hans-Peter Störr Jun 7 at 7:06
26

An oath on the constitution is falsifiable. An oath on the people is worse than meaningless.

A government could use it as an excuse to break the written law by claiming it was in the best interest of the people. Unsurprisingly, there are plenty "Democratic People's Republics" where exactly this happens on a daily basis.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Good concise answer. Indeed, demagogues almost always claim to be acting for the people. – reirab Jun 2 at 22:28
  • plenty "People's Republic" — there are only six, including two democracies (Bangladesh and Burkina Faso). – gerrit Jun 3 at 8:27
  • 4
    @gerrit - You're right, most of the "People's Republics" died with the fall of communism in the 1990s. There are still more countries that fit the bill (except in name), such as Bolivia where Evo Morales ran for a fourth term in 2019, violating both the constitution and a referendum. – Rainer P. Jun 3 at 8:50
7

You'll have to ask James Madison and the drafters of the US constitution.

The theory is that the president is there to represent the United States and not the people of the United States (who are democratically represented by the House of Representatives). The President is a check against democratic power (and so is elected by a college and not a popular vote)

All this makes much more sense in 1787 than in 2019. As now the president is de-facto chosen in a two stage process involving statewide democratic elections and so a significant involvement of "the people" in a way that was not anticipated in the 18th century.

| improve this answer | |
  • 11
    "All this makes much more sense in 1787 than in 2019." This is opinion. – Ryan_L Jun 1 at 21:52
  • 3
    It is, but I've back it up no with why: The constitution specifies a presidential election by electors (single stage) but the defacto process is a two stage election with a democratic aspect (the people choose the electors) The broadly democratic aspect of the presidential selection was not anticipated in 1787. – James K Jun 2 at 7:13
1

I believe the important point is that the United States is a Hobbesian society.

Thomas Hobbes' great work Leviathan was published in England in the late sixteenth century. He it was whose prime consideration about society was that there should be a "sovereign". Without a sovereign to keep order, people would live in a "state of nature", where life would be "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short".

This Hobbesian outlook informed British thinking as the monarchy began to fail under the Stuarts. But in place of the monarch, the 1689 Bill of Rights, erected alongside it a parliamentary system, which became effectively "the sovereign".

The American "Revolution" was simply a case of Englishmen (Washington, Jefferson etc) claiming Englishmen's rights under the 1689 law. Hence the US Constitution, in providing for a "president" simply provides an elected king, and the law is embodied in that document. All the stuff about "people" was mere window dressing. Like Britain, America has never had a revolution in the sense that the French had, beginning in 1789. Liberté, égalité, fraternité was never on the agenda in America, otherwise slavery could not have continued.

Washington merely sought to acquire all the powers of George III. And that is why today the president's first duty is to the Constitution - since the constitution is Hobbes' "sovereign".

| improve this answer | |

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .