Monday, January 12, 2009

Oath of Office

Much has been said about how (relatively) young Barack Obama is. I wrote here about the emotional impact of that on those of us who are baby boomers (and, of course, with our generation, it's all about us).

But it just occurred to me that Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the presidential oath for his first time, next week, is also relatively young. According to this online biography, Roberts is the youngest chief since John Marshall.

So, with what is perhaps one of the most trivial of my presidential trivia items, I will examine the combined ages of presidents (at their first inauguration) and those who administered the oath of office to them.

The Constitution prescribes the language of the presidential oath (Article 2, Section 1, clause 8), but says nothing about who should administer the oath. It has become customary for the chief justice to perform that role. The Library of Congress provides a summary of presidential inaugurations, including the identity of the person administering the oath.

The chief justice has given the oath at every regularly-scheduled inauguration since 1797. That could not have been the case at the first inauguration in 1789, because the office did not yet exist. At George Washington's second inauguration in 1793, the oath was administered by an associate justice, William Cushing. My research came up empty as to why Chief Justice John Jay did not do so.

When presidents have died in office, it has not always been feasible to have the chief justice swear in the new president. That led to the only occasion on which a woman administered the oath. After John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963, there was a consensus that Kennedy's vice president, Lyndon Johnson, should take the oath before flying back to Washington. Judge Sarah Hughes gave him the oath, aboard the presidential plane, on the tarmac at Love Field.

Getting back to the age question: adding the ages of the 47-year-old Obama, and the 53-year-old Roberts, produces a sum of 100. That is the third youngest combined age of oath-giver and oath-taking-president in history. And it is the youngest such combination that includes a chief justice.

Theodore Roosevelt was the youngest president; he was the 42-year-old vice president, when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York, and he remained there until his death. Roosevelt took the oath in Buffalo, from John R. Hazel, a 40-year-old federal judge. Their combined age of 82 makes them easily the youngest such pair in history.

The second youngest combined age was that of the George Washington, then 57, and Robert Livingston, whose title was chancellor of New York, which was a judicial position. Livingston was 42, so their combined age was just a bit younger than that of Obama and Roberts.

At the other end of the scale, the oldest pairing was that of President James Buchanan and Chief Justice Roger Taney, in 1857. Taney is infamous in American history as the author of the Supreme Court's opinion in the 1857 case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. The Court decided that an African American slave who had been brought into free states could not sue for his freedom, because he was not a citizen. That outcome was one of the actions around that time that soon led to the Civil War.

Taney was chief justice for 28 years, from 1836 to 1864. At the time of the 1857 inauguration, he was 79 years old, and Buchanan was 65. Four years later, Taney participated in his last inauguration; 83 years old in 1861 when he swore Abraham Lincoln into office, he was the oldest person ever to administer the oath.

A close second are Ronald Reagan, the oldest president, and Chief Justice Warren Burger. In 1981, when Reagan was first inaugurated, he was 69, and Burger was 73.

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