On January 20, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of the office to become the 45th President of the United States. In all likelihood, when he takes the oath, he will place his left hand on a Bible and raise his right hand in the air. This is the tradition for presidential oath-taking in recent years, but just how far back does this tradition go?
George Washington Leads the Way
George Washington, our nation’s first president, established innumerable precedents for how a President should act. These precedents, however, did not include raising his right hand when he took the first oath of office in New York in March 1989.
While there are no photographs of the event, this artist’s rendering shows Washington placing his right hand on a Bible, while his left hovers over his heart.
Another artist depicted more or less the same stance: right hand on the Bible, left hand by his side and resting on the hilt of his sword.
So when did Presidents start raising their right hands? It’s not entirely clear.
Drawings of early presidential inaugurations can be hard to find, and of course, you can never be sure whether the drawing depicts what really happened or is just a product of the artist’s imagination.
In 1817, James Monroe became the fifth President of the United States. At his swearing-in, Monroe followed Washington’s lead and placed his right hand on a Bible and kept his left hand by his side.
Andrew Jackson Puts His Hand Up
In 1829, Andrew Jackson ascended to the presidency riding a wave of white populism. In this portrait, Andrew proudly holds his right hand high. This is the earliest depiction of a President that I could find of where the President’s right hand is up and left hand is on the Bible.
You might think, then, that Andrew Jackson kicked off the tradition of raising your right hand and the practice stuck from then forward, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Abraham Lincoln Puts His Hand Down
Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president, seems to have reverted to Washington’s model of right hand on Bible and left hand down for at least his second inauguration.
Ulysses S. Grant, the eighteenth president, seems to have followed Lincoln’s lead. While I couldn’t find a drawing of Grant’s first inauguration, at his second, he puts his right hand on the Bible and keeps his left hand by his side.
Ups and Downs
In 1877, after a bitterly contested election, Rutherford B. Hayes ascends to the presidency. Hayes, it seems, decided not to touch a holy book and instead raised his right hand and kept his left hand by his side.
James Garfield and Chester Arthur both followed Hayes’s lead when they were sworn in as president in 1881, Garfield first, and then Arthur after Garfield was assassinated.
So it would seem that, by this point, the matter is settled. Right hands go up during swearing-ins. But not necessarily.
In 1889, Benjamin Harrison in a rain-soaked ceremony put his right hand on the Bible and kept his left hand down.
Finally a Photograph
William Mckinley became president in 1897. He seems to have thrown all tradition to the wind and put his left hand on the Bible and kept his right hand by his side.
And finally in 1901, we have a photograph. McKinley is inaugurated a second time, and this time we have a photo that clearly shows that, indeed, McKinley did not raise his right hand. In the photo, however, McKinley has his right hand on the Bible, while in his left hand he holds some papers.
A few months after his inauguration, McKinley is assassinated, and his Vice President Theodore Roosevelt becomes President, at the relatively tender age of 41. In a sketch of the hurried swearing in, Roosevelt holds his right hand high and uses his left to clutch the lapel of his jacket.
Roosevelt’s second inauguration was a more formal affair, and here again we have a photograph. While the angle is not ideal, it seems clear that Roosevelt indeed is raising his right hand while his left hand hangs by his side.
When Is This Tradition Going to Start?
Roosevelt was followed by William Howard Taft, but I could not find a photo of Taft’s inauguration. In 1913, however, Woodrow Wilson becomes President, and Wilson goes his own way, placing his right hand on a Bible and holding the Bible with his left hand.
The next President is Warren G. Harding, who takes the oath of office in 1921. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Harding clearly raises his right hand and keeps his left hand by his side.
Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, also goes with the right hand up and the left hand down.
Just when you think the tradition is firmly established, Herbert Hoover comes along and goes back to putting his right hand on the Bible and keeping his left hand down.
And then in 1933 we get to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the man who will take the oath of office of the President of the United States more times than any other person in the country’s history. As he takes the oath for the first time, he stands with his right hand held high.
So that’s it then, right? Right hands up it is. That is, until the next person, which is Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt’s Vice President, hastily inaugurated in the waning days of World War II after Roosevelt’s sudden death. What does Truman do in his private swearing-in ceremony? It looks like right hand on top of the Bible and left hand underneath it.
But in another photo, it seems Truman is holding the Bible and raising his right hand. So maybe Truman started with both hands on the Bible and then raised his right hand. It’s not entirely clear.
Truman’s second inauguration in 1949 is more clear. This time, Truman clearly takes the oath with his right hand raised.
Can We Call It a Tradition Yet?
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the General who was the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, becomes President with his right hand raised.
And he does the same thing for the beginning of his second term in 1957.
At this point, it’s right hands up all the way through. For completeness, pictures of the other presidential swearing-in ceremonies follow.
1961 — John F. Kennedy
1963 — Lyndon B. Johnson
1965 — Johnson again
1969 — Richard M. Nixon
1973 — Nixon Again
1974 — Gerald F. Ford
1977 — Jimmy Carter
1981 — Ronald Reagan
1985 — Reagan again
1989 — George H.W. Bush
1993 — William Jefferson Clinton
1997 — Clinton again
2001 — George W. Bush
2005 — Bush again
2009 — Barack Obama
2013 — Obama again
So that’s it. It seems that the tradition of raising the right hand to take the oath of office became firmly established in the twentieth century. What this stroll through history shows, however, is that even though it may seem that right hands raised may be the only way to take an oath, it has not always been so in our nation’s history. Time’s change, and even seemingly firmly rooted traditions are susceptible to the shifting sands of time.
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