Every four years a flurry of articles appear that cover the events surrounding the presidential inauguration. Many of these articles, like the January 20, 2021 AP news article, Biden’s Bible puts him in line with inaugural tradition, claim John Quincy Adams used a law book in 1825. One such article appeared eight years ago at the time of President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. In this particular article, Dean Obeidallah expressed the opinion that even though there’s been a long tradition of president’s using a Bible, "Presidents should not swear in on a Bible." In making the case, he mentions the swearing-in ceremonies for both John Quincy Adams, and Theodore Roosevelt (with more emphasis on the former).
The Constitution does not require that the president take the oath of office by swearing on a Bible. That would have been a very simple requirement for the constitutional drafters to include. To the contrary, the Founders wanted to ensure that Americans of any faith – or no faith – could hold federal office.
They set it forth plainly in Article VI: “… No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”
Placing a hand on a Bible while reciting the presidential oath is simply a tradition started by George Washington. Indeed, two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies.
Although Roosevelt’s reasons are unclear, John Quincy Adams’ reasons could not be more plain.
Adams, the son of President John Adams, was a religious man. But he chose to be sworn in with his hand on a book of U.S. laws. He wanted to demonstrate that he recognized a barrier between church and state and that his loyalty was to our nation’s laws above all else.
Despite the many repeated claims that John Quincy Adams used a law book, the reasoning put forward as to why John Quincy Adams “chose to be sworn in with his hand on a book of U.S. laws” is totally incorrect. A law book did play a role at the March 4, 1825 inauguration of President JQA, but it was not for the purpose of placing his hand on the book (unless he was a palm reader). To be precise, Chief Justice John Marshall presented JQA with a law book from which he read the presidential oath.
The account written up in the July 6,1825 issue of The Independent Chronicle tells what actually took place::
A Contrast. – John Quincy Adams, President of the United States, is the son of the second President that ever ruled over America, the well known and peaceful successor of Washington – the Numa of the United States; and if we may judge from principles which he has taken the first occasion of testifying, he is well worthy of the honor which such an elevation confers. The manly plainness and simplicity of the form of his inauguration deserves notice. Think of the childish ceremonies, the idle pageantry, the ridiculous mummeries, holy oil, the feathers, furs, and flippery of a coronation in Europe, as contrasted with this dignified scene! At Washington, in the capitol, Mr. Adams, in a plain suit of black, ascends the Speaker’s chair, pronounces his address to his fellows citizens, walks to the table of the Judges, and on a volume of the laws of the United States reads his oath of office, and thus the magistrate of a mighty state installed.
What is plain to every president-elect is that even by John Quincy Adams’ own account a Bible was not used, and that a president-elect can chose to follow the same example set by our sixth president, which was a tradition already set in place by his five predecessors. According to contemporary historical records, the fact is that if we start with Washington’s second inauguration and examine the succeeding inaugural ceremonies for