Widgetized Section

Go to Admin » Appearance » Widgets » and move Gabfire Widget: Social into that MastheadOverlay zone

Public Administration and the Constitutional Oath of Office

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tom R. Hulst
March 4, 2024

“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again. Some men aren’t capable of this, but I’d be loathe to think your father one of them.”  -Thomas More, in A Man for All Seasons

Much has been written and spoken recently about the constitutional oath of office that is administered to public officials in the United States. The Founders engaged in significant debates about a constitutional oath. Convention delegate James Wilson of Pennsylvania viewed oaths as “left handed security only” and that “a good government did not need them and a bad one could not or ought not to be supported.” In the end, however, the Founders included Article VI clause 3 in the U.S. Constitution which provides that, “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, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.” In his 1833 Commentaries on the Constitution, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote that requiring oaths for government officials “would seem to be a proposition too clear to render any reasoning necessary in support of it.”

It is worth reflecting on the meaning of the constitutional oath during these times as the U.S. republic faces serious existential threats. The oath of office has been severely cheapened while tendencies toward autocracy and authoritarianism have risen. “The sacred language of oaths”, John Rohr writes in To Run a Constitution, “directs attention beyond the parties to whom and before whom the pledge or statement is made. For this reason, an oath can never be reduced to a question of subordinating the will of one human being to that of another. . . Oaths, precisely because they are of moral significance, cannot be reduced to an abdication of one’s will and judgment in favor of another human being.”

Members of the U.S. Senate degraded their oath when they refused to conduct a trial of former President Trump as required by the Constitution (Article I Section 3) after his impeachment by the House of Representatives. Meanwhile, White House staff pressured legislators to toe the party line and ignore their own oath and moral compass. Former President Donald Trump became an oath-breaker when he attempted to remain in office through unlawful means after the 2020 election.

Effective public administration requires collaboration among the branches and levels of government; and the oath reinforces the interconnectedness of government agencies. When a public official holds up his or her right hand to support the Constitution, he or she is making a sacred promise as an individual to uphold republican virtues of the rule of law, separation of powers and civil liberties. An official is offering a pledge not to some opaque concept of democracy but to the written Constitution—to the words and textual concepts of the American charter. In keeping this pledge, a city manager or county executive should honor the managerial or Weberian values of economy and efficiency in running a municipality. They should also defend the values of representation and lawmaking of the legislature and city council, as well as due process and equal protection of the laws as interpreted by the courts. A school superintendent should guide the administration and effectiveness of the entire school system, respect the policymaking of state institutions, the rule-making of the school board and the authority of the judicial role of arbitrators and hearing officers in resolving individual disputes.   

How can the professional field of public administration strengthen the oath of office today and fortify moral leadership in a democratic republic? The public administration community can intentionally promote a reverence for constitutionalism in its largest sense. Through professional development activities the profession should:

  • re-instill an understanding of the political thought of philosophers such as Aristotle, Locke and Montesquieu;
  • illuminate the wisdom of the Founders as expressed in the Federalist Papers;
  • deepen the understanding of the Constitution by revisiting Supreme Court decisions such as Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education and Baker v. Carr;
  • reexamine the seminal works of the profession including those of Chester A. Newland, John Rohr, David Rosenbloom, and Dwight Waldo.

James Madison wrote in Federalist #44 that “It has been asked why it was thought necessary, that the State magistracy should be bound to support the federal Constitution, and unnecessary that a like oath should be imposed on the officers of the United States, in favor of the State constitutions. Several reasons might be assigned for the distinction. I content myself with one, which is obvious and conclusive. The members of the federal government will have no agency in carrying the State constitutions into effect. The members and officers of the State governments, on the contrary, will have an essential agency in giving effect to the federal Constitution.”

The constitutional oath of office of public officials, therefore, is not an outworn relic of the past. It is a pledge to follow the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. It is an important component in leading the public service with honor, integrity, and dependability. It is an important symbol of the public trust in government and a promise to protect and defend the values and principles of a constitutional republic. 

Author: Tom R. Hulst received an MA in public administration from Washington State University, was policy advisor to Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans, administrator in the State Office of Public Instruction, and superintendent of Peninsula School District. He published The Footpaths of Justice William O. Douglas in 2004, been a long-time ASPA member, and currently teaches politics at Tacoma Community College. 

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *