Why doesn't every president swear his oath of office on the Lincoln Bible?

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Jan. 19 2009 5:26 PM

Why Doesn't Every President Use the Lincoln Bible?

And other tidbits about the Inauguration Day scripture.

See all of Slate's inauguration coverage.

U.S. President Bill Clinton is sworn in January 20, 1997. Click image to expand.
Bill Clinton is sworn in for his second term as president of the United States

Barack Obama will be sworn in as president Tuesday with the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for his first inauguration. As his transition team noted in its press release, "President-elect Obama will be the first President sworn in using the Lincoln Bible since its initial use in 1861." Why haven't other presidents used the historic artifact?                      

Because the Library of Congress didn't offer it up. The Bible, which was given to Lincoln by the clerk of the Supreme Court, is part of the permanent rare-books collection of the library. Other presidents probably could have used the Lincoln Bible if they'd asked for it, but LoC staffers proposed the idea themselves shortly after Obama's election. The library already has plans to mount an exhibition of its vast cache of Lincolniana to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, Feb. 12. The newly famous inauguration Bible will go on display directly following its use by Obama.

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There are no particular rules on which Bible is used or how it's used for the ceremony. Up until Grover Cleveland, inaugurations were not BYOB—presidents arrived at the ceremony with the assumption a Bible would be provided for them. It's since become common for incoming executives to use their family Bibles, though a handful have opted for the Masonic Bible upon which George Washington swore his oath of office. That book is housed in New York City at the lodge that lent the Bible to Washington in the first place. The only other inauguration Bible held by the Library of Congress belonged to Chester A. Arthur, a gift of his descendents. Most inauguration Bibles belong either to the families of the presidents or to their presidential libraries or archives.

According to official records kept by the Architect of the Capitol, Teddy Roosevelt is the only president who wasn't sworn in using a Bible; he took a rushed oath of office in 1901 following the assassination of William McKinley. However, it's rumored that LBJ was sworn in using a Catholic missal aboard Air Force One after Kennedy's assassination. John Quincy Adams, according to his own letters, placed his hand on a constitutional law volume rather than a Bible to indicate where his fealty lay. Franklin Pierce "affirmed" rather than swore his oath on the Bible, reportedly because of a crisis of faith following his son's death. There are no known inauguration Bibles for presidents John Adams through John Tyler; in fact, there's no concrete evidence that those early presidents used a Bible at all for the oath.

If the weather's bad enough, Obama might lose the chance to use the Lincoln Bible. George W. Bush wanted to use the Washington Bible for his first inauguration, as his father had done, but the plan was foiled by drizzly weather. The Masons are extremely careful with the Washington Bible: They refuse to let the artifact be X-rayed at airport security and demand that the president be the only one who touches it without gloves. The LoC takes similar precautions with its artifacts. Rain or snow (provided it's not bad enough to force an indoor ceremony) would probably force Obama to scramble for another Bible.

Bonus Explainer: Which members of the new Obama administration have to take an oath of office? All of them. Every federal employee, whether a vice president, Cabinet member, staff assistant, or postal worker, must take the same oath to support and defend the Constitution. That rule was established in U.S. Code in 1789 and has been slightly tweaked since then. The presidential oath of office is stipulated in the Constitution.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Clark Evans of the Library of Congress.

Noreen Malone is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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