Oath of Office

(The following is a guest article written by my colleague Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library’s staff newsletter, The Gazette.)

President Barack Obama next week will again take the oath of office on the Bible, drawn from the Library of Congress collections, that President Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration more than 150 years ago.

Obama took the oath on the Lincoln Bible at his first inauguration, in 2009. On Monday, the small, burgundy volume will have a companion at the swearing-in ceremony staged on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol: A Bible that belonged to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Obama will place his hand on the stacked Bibles as he takes the oath of office administered by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Roberts – symbolically linking the president who emancipated the slaves during the Civil War with the reverend who led the civil rights movement a century later.

The 1861 Lincoln Inaugural Bible, opened to the page signed by the clerk of the Supreme Court, William Thomas Carroll, attesting that the book was used for Lincoln’s oath of office

“President Obama is honored to use these Bibles at the swearing-in ceremonies,” Steve Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said on Jan. 10 in announcing the selections. “On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, this historic moment is a reflection of the extraordinary progress we’ve made as a nation.”

The Lincoln Bible, housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, originally was purchased by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, for use during Lincoln’s swearing-in ceremony on March 4, 1861.

The Bible, a King James translation printed by Oxford University Press in 1853, is bound in burgundy velvet with a gilt metal rim around the outside edges.

The cover bears a metal shield inscribed with the words “Holy Bible.” The 1,280-page book is 5.9 inches long, 3.9 inches wide and 1.8 inches deep.

On inside pages, Carroll affixed a blue seal of the Supreme Court and inscribed a note certifying that the Bible was the volume upon which Lincoln took the oath. He also inscribed a personal note – a dedication to his wife: “to Mrs. Sally Carroll from her devoted husband Wm. Thos. Carroll.”

The book eventually found its way to the Lincoln family. In 1928, Mary Harlan Lincoln, the widow of Lincoln’s first son, Robert Todd, gave the Bible to the Library.

The Bible will be placed on display in the Civil War exhibition in the Jefferson Building from Jan. 23 to Feb. 18.

The Lincoln Bible’s companion at the inauguration on Monday will be a volume that, according to the King family, once served as the “traveling Bible” for the civil rights icon.

King usually traveled with a selection of books, often with this Bible. He used the book for inspiration and in preparing sermons and speeches – including during his time as pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.

“We know our father would be deeply moved to see President Obama take the oath of office using his Bible,” King’s children said in a statement. “His ‘traveling Bible’ inspired him as he fought for freedom, justice and equality, and we hope it can be a source of strength for the president as he begins his second term.

“We join Americans across the country in embracing this opportunity to celebrate how far we have come, honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. through service, and rededicate ourselves to the work ahead.”

Presidents traditionally have used Bibles during the swearing-in – there is no constitutional requirement – and often choose a volume with personal or historical significance.

At the first inauguration, George Washington used The Holy Bible from St. John’s Masonic Lodge No. 1 – opened at random and in haste to Genesis 49:13, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies.

Presidents occasionally use that Bible for the swearing-in ceremony – Warren G. Harding, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, for example, all took the oath on the same volume used by Washington.

Most have used a single book, but Obama won’t be the first to be sworn in using two Bibles.

Richard M. Nixon, for example, used two family Bibles. In 1949, Truman used a facsimile of a Gutenberg Bible as well as the Bible on which he was sworn in following the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt nearly four years earlier. Eisenhower used the Washington Bible as well as his own “West Point Bible.”

In 2009, Obama became the first president since Lincoln to be sworn in on that small, burgundy book.

On Monday, he’ll place his hand the King Bible and once more on the Lincoln Bible, connecting one of the nation’s great presidents with its greatest civil rights leader.

“Bibles used in inaugural ceremonies take on a certain resonance,” said Mark Dimunation, chief of Rare Book. “Certainly the use of the Lincoln Bible by President Obama has elevated this object to an iconic status – one that carries a great deal of emotional meaning to visitors when they view it. Employing it a second time and connecting it to such important anniversaries will only enhance this quality.”

You can see more images of the Lincoln Bible in this blog post from 2009, for President Obama’s first inauguration.


  1. Mim Harrison
    January 18, 2013 at 9:23 am

    This was so interesting–just the kind of history that so many of us wish we knew something about. It’s reassuring to know that a treasure like the Lincoln Bible is with the Library, thus belonging in some small way to all Americans.

  2. steve
    January 18, 2013 at 9:24 am

    I was hoping this article was about the oath of office, like the headline reads. This article has nothing to do with the oath of office, it is only about bibles.

    I’d like to read an article about the actual oath:

    “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that 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.”

    Or how about an article about presidents who did not take the oath on a bible.

  3. John A. Barwick
    January 18, 2013 at 7:39 pm

    Did I miss something over the years, but an oath recognizes a power greater than the individual takihat oath.

    History has demonstrated mny times that those leaders that believed they were a law unto themselves have been the worst leaders.

    Those that recognized a power greater than themselves have proven to be the greatest leaders.

    There is only a fine line between dictators, executive using Executive Orders.

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