Swearing is not what it used to be.
Apart from courtroom scenes in movies, we rarely think of swearing as anything other than cursing.
It wasn’t always that way. Until the 20th Century, many states did not allow the testimony of blacks or atheists, as well as people related to the crime. The idea was that only Christians could be relied upon to tell the truth.
Even recently, the issue of oaths and truth telling has continued to affect the law. In the U.K., as recently as 2015, a judge threw out the evidence of a Muslim witness who testified on a Bible, rather than a Koran.
And two presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Pierce both refused to swear the oath of office, instead affirming (which is allowed by the Constitution).
At the time of the American Revolution, it was not at all clear that the United States would become a republic. Alexander Hamilton is believed to have wanted George Washington to become king, rather than president (and presumably saw himself as the heir-apparent to Washington). Certell’s Common Sense Government course is built around the question posted to Benjamin Franklin upon leaving the Constitutional Convention:
Audience member: “Dr. Franklin, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin: “A republic, if you can keep it!”
Among the questions a republic faces is how to maintain loyalty to a form of government, rather than to a person. In recent years, close and complicated elections have led an increasing number of Americans to question the legitimacy of the process, which is to say their loyalty to the regime.
At the time of the Founding, this question took several forms. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 prohibits titles of nobility. Thus, you can have a Sir Paul McCartney in the U.K., but you could never have a “Prince Prince” in the United States.
To become a knight – or to accept a title of nobility of any kind, requires swearing loyalty to whoever grants you the title. Swearing to a foreign power is, in effect, a promise to commit treason, if called upon.
HBO’s Game of Thrones exemplifies this problem. No one knows who is legitimate, or what “legitimate” really means. There is no reference point for determining who is really king or queen, except war. The result is incredible bloodshed and suffering, of both the high and the low.
The genius of the American republic (to the extent we’ve kept it), is the long acceptance of the regime, avoidance of too many “entangling alliances” and the willingness of those in power to transfer it peacefully. George Washington set the precedent for all this this in word and deed. His decision not to seek a third or more term, meant that he could supervise a peaceful transition. And in his Farewell Address, he cautioned us against getting too involved in the power politics of the rest of the world.
Today, his message has lost none of its power.
- What does it mean to be loyal today? Is a promise a promise?
- Apart from in a courtroom, do oaths and promises carry much weight today?
- Can a person be loyal to two different regimes- dual citizens, for instance, at the same time?
- A person loyal to another country has obligations to it. Should they then have the same rights as Americans? If not, how should they be treated differently?