From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Presidents come and go, as do commanders and officers. The mission, style and location of war changes as does the enemy. But for every member of the Armed Forces, whether wearing a uniform of blue or green, one thing remains constant: They raise their right hands and pledge to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.
That document, with its memorable Preamble, was signed 227 years ago today, Sept. 17, 1787, born out of the Declaration of Independence as a means of governing 13 very diverse states. Prior to that date, the young nation had been ruled by the Articles of Confederation, which required all 13 states to agree unanimously to get anything passed. Finding that a bit unwieldy in the days after the war, the Constitution diluted the majority requirement to a two-thirds agreement, or nine out of 13 states. That would be a fortuitous choice.
After months of arguing Benjamin Franklin, wrote to the committee as they met Sept. 17, 1787, begging them to become unified in their quest. “I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our councils are confounded like those of the builders of Babel; and that our States are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats.”
Subtlety aside, Franklin’s words must have worked. Thirty-eight signed the document, with two delegates from Virginia, Gov. Edmund Randolph and George Mason, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, as the hold-outs. As soon as the ninth state, New Hampshire, ratified the document June 21, 1788, the Constitution became law, going into effect Sept. 15, 1788. Rhode Island would be the last of the 13 states to ratify the Constitution on May 29, 1790.
Of course there are now 50 states and a few territories that fall under that original Constitution, which has been amended 27 times over its 227 year history. Having the Bill of Rights added as among the first amendments was the compromise made to get reluctant states to ratify the Constitution.
But it first started out with seven Articles: Legislative powers being granted to Congress with a Senate and House of Representatives; Executive power given to the President of the United States; Judicial power given to the Supreme Court; States’ rights; Requirement for two-thirds agreement; Laws made under the Constitution shall be the “supreme Law of the Land;” and Ratification is required for the establishment of the Constitution.
Luckily, no one enlisting in the military had to name the seven Articles that came with the original Constitution. As it was, officers wishing to serve in 1775 during the Revolutionary War had to name the 13 states and swear them to be “free, independent and sovereign states and declare no allegiance to George the third, king of Great Britain” and swear to “defend the United States against King George, his heirs and successors, and his and their abettors, assistants and adherents.”
For enlisted folks in 1775, it was a simple declaration of loyalty of voluntarily enlistment for one year unless sooner discharged.
The wording was slightly beefed up for the enlisted by Sept. 20, 1776, and approved by Congress to be “true to the United States of America, and to serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies opposers whatsoever; and to observe and obey the orders of the Continental Congress and the orders of the Generals and officers set over me by them.” The United States is still spoken of in the plural at this point in time.
The oath was tweaked again on Sept. 29, 1789, with the United States, still listed in plurality, now operating under the Constitution. The first part had all military enlistees swear to uphold the Constitution, and the second part to swear allegiance to the United States of America and obey the orders of the President of the United States, as well as be governed by the rules and articles of war established by Congress.
The oath for enlisted military remained pretty much the same until 1960.
But such was not the case for officers. By 1862, just as the Civil War was getting heated, the oath of office for officers changed the plural United States into a singular, because now the enemy was a divided nation. It was extremely specific in making sure those who joined did not harbor Southern sympathies. It specifically made prospective officers “swear or affirm” they have “never borne arms against the United States” have “voluntarily given no aid, countenance, counsel or encouragement to persons engaged in armed hostility thereto; …have neither sought nor accepted nor attempted to exercise the functions of any office whatsoever under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States,” and “have not yielded voluntary support to any pretended government, authority, power or constitution within the United States, hostile or inimical thereto.” The oath also adds for the first time that those taking it will “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
After the Civil War, the officer oath was revised again on May 13, 1884, which harkened back to a more simpler time, to “solemnly swear (or affirm) to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; to bear true faith and allegiance to the same; to take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and to well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”
It remained unchanged until 1959 when the officer oath was tweaked yet again to what remains in effect for today. The oath is the same for anyone, civilian as well as military, “elected or appointed to an office of honor or profit in the civil service or uniformed services,” with the exception of the President of the United States:
“I, _____ do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which I am about to enter; So help me God.” (DA Form 71, 1 Aug. 1, 1959, for officers.)
The oath currenly used by enlisted personnel was revised in 1960, taking effect in 1962 as follows:
“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of May 5, 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective Oct. 5, 1962).
Recently, although not in the Navy, there has been some debate about the use of the phrase “So help me God” while taking or giving the oath. The Navy’s policy is outlined in Chapter 1, Section 010203.b.(5) of the May 2011 Navy Recruiting Manual and it is the member’s discretion.
The Constitution itself, despite being written 227 years ago, indicates in the final paragraph of Article VI that all “shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”