On January 21, 2021, the day after President Biden took his oath of office a newly published author, Lindsay Chervinsky, posted an article with the title, Most Republican Lawmakers Have Failed John Quincy Adams – and The Constitution. Overall, it’s worth looking at. There is, however, a problem in the second paragraph where it states:
In March 1825, President-Elect John Quincy Adams broke with tradition and used a book of laws at his inauguration. He selected the book of laws, rather than a bible, so that he would be taking the oath of office on the Constitution of the United States. JQA’s model serves as a helpful reminder of how elected officials should act, and reminds us how far most Republican lawmakers have strayed from that high standard.
The problem with saying “John Quincy Adams broke with tradition” is that it’s not true. John Quincy Adams did not break with tradition when he “read the oath of office from of a Volume of Laws.” In doing so, he actually chose to follow the model set by George Washington’s second inauguration that took place in Philadelphia.
The precedent setting nature of Washington’s second inauguration is evident by thoroughly examining the March 1, 1793 - Cabinet Opinion on the Administration of the Presidential Oath, where there’s no mention of a Bible. In addition, the Philadelphia newspapers describing Washington’s second inauguration failed to mention a Bible, or offer any commentary on how federal Justice Cushing administered the presidential oath of office by selecting a text from which he read the presidential oath “rather than a bible.”
The fact is that all reliable firsthand accounts, describing presidential inaugurations from George Washington’s second inauguration through to the 1825 inauguration of John Quincy Adams, fail to mention a Bible. The so-called “JQA’s model” was not established by John Quincy Adams. That distinction belongs to George Washington starting at his second inauguration.
It’s only after Washington’s second inauguration and the next eight presidential inaugural ceremonies, a span of 36 years, where we find a president who broke with Washington’s no-Bible tradition. This break occurred at Andrew Jackson’s inauguration of March 4, 1829, where a District of Columbia Marshal appeared on the scene, and presented Andrew Jackson with a Bible. Here’s a snippet from a letter, dated March 11, 1829, written by Margaret Bayard Smith that describes the scene:
An almost breathless silence, succeeded [as Jackson started his speech] and the multitude was still, — listening to catch the sound of his voice, tho’ it was so low, as to be heard only by those nearest to him. After reading his speech, the oath was administered to him by [John Marshall] the Chief Justice. The Marshal presented the Bible. The President took it from his hands, pressed his lips to it, laid it reverently down, then bowed again to the people —Yes, to the people in all their majesty. . . .”
So, when we examine contemporary reports covering the time of our early presidents, it’s Andrew Jackson, not John Quincy Adams, who broke with the tradition of not using a Bible when swearing the presidential oath.