"My country is the World. My Religion is to do Good."

Common Sense as a Source of the Presidential Oath in the United States of America

Klara Rukshina

[July 2005]

" I do solemnly swear [or affirm] that I will faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." [The Constitution of the United States of America. Article II (The executive branch). Section 1, Clause 8]

The author is most grateful to Donald Fanger and to Peter Lubin for editorial advice and generous encouragement.

There is something unique about this solemn inaugural oath taken by the President of the United States. No President of any other democratic country has ever been required to take such an oath, where neither the People, nor the Rights of the People, nor the Country are the objects of the allegiance that is sworn, but the Constitution alone. To "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution, that is, to serve it, is evidently the most solemn duty of the President. It sounds as if the Constitution were a kind of Monarch, a King, pledged to with an oath of fidelity. It has been justly remarked by many scholars and foreign visitors that for the Americans, their Constitution is as sacred as a King is for the inhabitants of a monarchical country. The aim of this article is to consider Common Sense as a potential ideological source for the Presidential oath with its original approach towards the American Constitution.[1]
To the best of my knowledge, the relation between Paine's famous pamphlet and the Presidential oath has never before been the object of consideration by scholars. A most detailed and thorough study dedicated to the Presidential oath, the recently published book by Matthew A. Pauley, I Do Solemnly Swear. The President's Constitutional Oath. Its Meaning and Importance in the History of Oaths, does not handle the problem.[2]
What is known about the history of the President's Constitutional oath? The oath of the Executive was discussed and accepted at the Constitutional Convention -- at the time called the Federal Convention -- in 1787. The Convention officially opened on May 25, in Philadelphia. On June 18, Alexander Hamilton presented to the Convention his "Plan for the Election of the President," with his own version of a Presidential oath. It is well known that Hamilton, like John Adams, regarded the Executive as an elective monarch and the Constitution, consequently, as that of a monarchical country. As Adams put it: "Let us now consider what our constitution is and see whether any other name can with propriety be given it, than that of a monarchical republic, or if you will, a limited monarchy." Although Hamilton's "Plan," as a whole, did not have any influence upon the core of the American Constitution, his version of the Presidential oath seemingly was of some effect. It reads: "The President before he shall enter upon the execution of his office shall take an oath or affirmation, faithfully to execute the same, and to the utmost of his judgment and power to protect the rights of the people, and preserve the Constitution inviolate."[3]
One of the first versions of the Presidential oath was stated at the Constitutional Convention, in the Report of the Committee of Detail, on August 5: "1 solemnly swear -- or affirm -- that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States of America." This early form did not contain any phrase about preserving, protecting and defending the Constitution. It was James Madison and George Mason of Virginia, who, on August 27, 1787, moved to add that phrase to the oath to be taken by the President, before he should enter into the duties of the Executive: 'and will to the best of my judgment and power preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.' The motion was accepted. No special debates on the subject were noted and by September 12, 1787, the Committee of Style reported the oath as follows: "I, _________ , do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my judgment and power, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This came quite close to the final version.[4]
It is useful to compare the version of Hamilton with that of Mason and Madison, in order to throw some light on the extent of the influence of Common Sense upon the wording of the Presidential oath:

Mason and Madison: "I solemnly swear -- or affirm -- that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States of America, and will to the best of my judgment and power preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Alexander Hamilton: "The President before he shall enter upon the execution of his office shall take an oath or affirmation, faithfully to execute the same and to the utmost of his Judgment and power to protect the rights of the people, and preserve the Constitution inviolate." (Italics are mine.--K.R.)

The words in italics are common to both versions and demonstrate without any doubt that Hamilton's form laid the foundation of the final Presidential oath. But the change in the final wording is most significant. In Hamilton's version, "the rights of the people" precedes "the Constitution," which has the second place in the list of the highest political and civil values. The great republicans Mason and Madison, by leaving out the phrase "the rights of the people," advanced to the forefront "the Constitution" as the Supreme Law. It might be considered as a rebuff to Hamilton's idea of a limited monarchy and an elective monarch, for by placing the Constitution alone, Madison and Mason made certain that the Constitution permanently usurped the place that might have been claimed for a monarch.
Since then, the written Constitution, worked out by a specially convened Assembly, the Constitutional Convention, has been fixed, by the solemn oath of the President of the USA, as the Supreme Law, that, in a way, substitutes for a King in a monarchical state. All these concepts were first laid out in Common Sense, eleven years before.
The very idea of the solemn Oath of the Chief Executive is rooted in English tradition. The Coronation Oath in England, so familiar to the former colonists as recent subjects of Great Britain, may be considered the apparent model for the Presidential Oath. It is instructive to juxtapose the American Presidential Oath with its most obvious antecedent, the Coronation Oath in England. Both the texts, and the rituals may be contrasted. The juxtaposition of the English and American oaths throws some additional light on the problem of this article.
Although the coronation ceremony in England has remained essentially the same for over a thousand years, the wording of the Coronation Oath had been changed continually before the Act Establishing the Coronation Oath in 1688.Queen Mary and King William were the first to utter it. Since then the wording has not been modified for more than three hundred years. It runs as follows:

"The Archbishop or bishop shall say, "Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the people of this Kingdom of England, and the dominions thereto belonging, according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs of the same?"

The King and Queen shall say, "I solemnly promise so to do."

Archbishop or bishop, "Will you to your power cause law and justice in mercy to be executed in all your judgments?"

King and Queen, "I will."

Archbishop or bishop, "Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the laws of God, the true profession of the gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law, and will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of this Realm, and to the churches committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain unto them, or any of them?"

King and Queen, "All this I promise to do."

After this, the King and Queen laying his and her hand upon the holy Gospels, shall say, King and Queen, "The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep: So help me God."

Then the King and Queen shall kiss the book."

As is obvious, the texts of the oaths compared have very little in common.
The procedures demonstrate both deep differences and some overlapping features. The English King swears "to govern ... according to the statutes in Parliament agreed on, and the laws and customs" of the country. Inthe American Presidential Oath, on behalf of "the People of the United States," a written Constitution takes the place of the English king. The American President swears not to govern but to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Thus it seems that the Constitution itself, behind the President, will be doing the governing.
The Coronation Oath of Great Britain defines the United Kingdom as a Christian country. More specifically, the monarch swears allegiance to "the Protestant reformed religion," and gives a solemn pledge to preserve all the institutions concerned. The ceremony is assisted by the Archbishop. The text of the American Presidential Oath is entirely without any religious allusion, to promote the separation of church and state. In contrast to the English rituals, American Presidents have been sworn-in by the Chief Justice.[5]
Some similarities are shared in the American ritual, not required by the Constitution. According to tradition, the Presidential Oath has a physical aspect, characteristic for the so-called corporal oaths.[6] The American President takes his oath while keeping his hand on the Bible. It is a ritual from the British Coronation Oath, but not required by the law, though all Presidents since Washington have done it. With time, the custom of kissing the Bible, after the oath is taken, was dropped. "So help me, God," the familiar ending to the Presidential oath, is also not required by the Constitution. At the first inaugural George Washington spontaneously added the phrase that echoes the final sentence in the Coronation Oath. Since then, every subsequent president has said it.
From the point of view of our investigation the following radically new ideas of the author of Common Sense are of the greatest importance: a written Constitution; a special Assembly convened to work it out, or Constitutional Convention; and the way of treating the Constitution as the King is treated in a strictly monarchical country.
Paine argues for a representative republic and offers, as he puts it, "hints" of the federated system of state power in an independent America. He insists: "Always remembering, that our strength is continental, not provincial." Paine proposes "to frame a Continental Charter, or Charter of the United Colonies; (answering to what is called the Magna Charta of England) fixing the number and manner of choosing Members of Congress, Members of Assembly, with their date of sitting;" draw "the line of business and jurisdiction between them," and secure "freedom and property to all men."[7] Evidently, the "charter" should imply both: a Bill of Rights for individuals, and a setting forth of the Structure, Powers and the terms of government offices. Before these ideas were incorporated in the Constitution of the United States, they had been embodied in state constitutions.
Paine's idea of a written Constitution is contrasted to the "unwritten" constitution of England. In fact, until the American state and national constitutions, no country had been known to possess a written constitution. As Matthew A. Pauley states: "When George Washington first took [the] oath on April 30, 1789, he made the written Constitution a living reality." [8] Since then the constitutions of many democratic countries have been built on the same model.
The author of Common Sense insisted on the unique opportunity for the Americans "to begin government at the right end," that is "the articles or charter of government should be formed first, and men delegated to execute them afterwards."[9] The Constitution should "come from some intermediate body between the governed and the governors, that is between the Congress and the people," in the form of "a continental conference" convened for that purpose.[10] The idea was first successfully realized when the Pennsylvania Constitution was being elaborated in 1776. The representatives for a constitutional Convention were elected, with Benjamin Franklin as its president. After finishing the task, the Convention dissolved.[11] The American Constitutional Convention, in 1787, served as a precedent for the National Constituent Assembly during the French revolution, and then later for some other countries -- Russia, in 1918, among them, -- even to the present day.
In his Common Sense Paine convincingly proves there is no room for a monarch in a republic, defined as a political body of free people. Nonetheless, a throne, empty of its king, may well be filled to the advantage of humanity. Paine suggests that the Charter, the written Constitution as the Supreme Law, should replace the king.
F.A. Hayek, who does not consider Paine's inheritance, explores the origin of the notion "rule of law" and the phrase ""aw is king." He states: "By the end of the fourth century b.c. ( in Ancient Greece. -- K.R.) it had come to be necessary to emphasize that 'in a democracy the laws should be masters' ..... The phrase about the law being king (nomos basileus) already occurs much earlier."[12] In my opinion, Thomas Paine gives the last phrase an absolutely original meaning.
Paine's phrase "the law is King,"[13] so often cited, is strangely misinterpreted as "the rule of law" even by Paine's biographers. In fact, Paine never praised "the rule of law." Moreover, it was an idea about which Paine expressed skepticism. When John Adams defined a republic as "an empire of laws and not of men," Paine retorted: "As laws may be bad as well as good, an empire of laws may be the best of all governments or the worst of all tyrannies."(Italics. -- Paine)[14]
To my mind, what Paine actually means by his "the law is King" is a totally original idea: a written Constitution ("a Charter," or "a Constitution," as Paine called it) should become a kind of King, the Supreme Authority, in a republican America. Let us refer to the corresponding extract to verify such an interpretation. The passage comes after the description of the contents of the "charter," and the way it should be framed by the "Continental Conference."

But where, say some, is the king of America? I'll tell you, friend, he reigns above, and does not make havoc on mankind like the royal brute of Great Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the Word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know,that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America the law is king. For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is. A government of our own is our natural right: and when a man seriously reflects on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced, that it is infinitely wiser and safer, to form a Constitution of our own in a cool deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. (Emphasis is mine -- K.R.). [15]

In my opinion, it is most likely that what Paine means by his phrase "in America the law is King" is that the law in the form of "the charter," or the written "Constitution" of a representative republic, is to be treated as monarchs in some traditionally monarchial countries: above the ordinary laws, a kind of Supreme Law. Without this understanding, the proper sense of the phrase is likely to be perverted. Here is an example among many others. A. O. Aldridge in his Thomas Paine's American Ideology comments on the passage: "In order to join celebration of the continental charter with homage to the deity, Paine proposes a day to be set apart for proclaiming the charter or constitution. The solemn ceremony he prescribes consists in depositing the charter on the Bible and then placing a crown on the charter. This symbolizes that, for America, the law is king." Because Aldridge does not specify that "law" in Paine's text is equal to "charter" or "Constitution," he makes the mistake that seems to be common: law is taken in its general sense. The genuine meaning of Paine's phrase escaped his notice.[16]
It is significant that the chief political ceremony of the American polity -- the swearing-in of the chief executive, the President -- involves some of the elements pointed out by Paine, which are in accord with British customs. A born Englishman, Paine was well aware of English tradition and retained some elements of the English coronation procedure. A day, Inauguration Day, is "solemnly set apart;" "the divine law, the Word of God" (that is, the Bible) mentioned by Paine appears in this political ritual, for the President takes his oath with one hand on the Bible. But the sense of the ceremony has been changed utterly as demonstrated above. The American President, assuming his mantle of office, swears faithfully to uphold the Constitution of the United States. It actually means that each Presidential inauguration involves a rededication to the rule of the Constitution, our "charter," as the Supreme Law. That is, in my opinion, the real meaning of "the law is king" in the United States.
Thus Paine eulogized the Charter as the Supreme Law and suggested that it be respected like a King, retain a royal aura by inspiring reverence and awe. This idea first proclaimed in Common Sense and perfectly understood and imbibed by the Founders of the American Constitution, has been most influential for the future development of the American state system: America took the English respect for law one step further. In England, whatever Parliament passes becomes the law without further review. In America, all laws must meet the requirement that they be "constitutional" -- that is, not be in conflict with the Constitution. One might suppose that the Constitution has become the true "King" of the United States.
How could it happen that these ideas articulated in Common Sense were incorporated into the Presidential oath, while the author was never referred to in connection with its formation? Let us examine some aspects of the history of the famous pamphlet.
It is well known that the circulation and popularity of Common Sense were unprecedented: according to some scholars, about half-a-million copies of Common Sense were sold in 1776. The pamphlet was reprinted only in 1791.[17] It was distributed either free or for a very low price: "Common Sense for eighteen pence" was quite common at the time. The ideas of Common Sense fell on fertile ground and were absorbed avidly that very year, 1776, and reflected in both the Declaration of Independence and some state constitutions, laying a foundation for the future democratic republican structure of this country.
An astute anonymous correspondent from the Constitutional Gazette (February 24, 1776) predicted: "This animated piece (Common Sense -- K.R.) dispels, with irresistible energy, the prejudice of the mind against the doctrine of independence, and pours in upon it such an inundation of light and truth, as will produce an instantaneous and marvelous change in the temper - in the views and feelings of an American. The ineffable delight with which it is perused, and its doctrines imbibed, is a demonstration that the seeds of independence, will grow surprisingly with proper cultivation in the fields of America."[18] The half-million copies sold mostly in America, in 1776, may well be responsible for the change of opinion of the people.
Here is the testimony of another of Paine's contemporaries, David Ramsey, a most valuable one, as he was the author of the first history of the American Revolution, published in 1789. In his Preface, Ramsey informs the reader that as a member of Congress "in the year 1781, 1783, 1785, and 1786," he "had access to all the official papers of the United States;" and that he writes "about recent events, known to thousands as well as myself." Ramsey states: "Some of the popular leaders may have secretly wished for independence from the beginning of the controversy, but their number was small and their sentiments were not generally known. While the public mind was balancing on this eventful subject, several writers placed the advantages of independence in various points of view. Among these Thomas Paine in a pamphlet, under the signature of Common Sense, held the most distinguishing rank. ……In union with the feelings and sentiments of the people, it produced surprising effects. Many thousands were convinced, and were led to approve and long for a separation from the Mother Country. Though that measure, a few months before, was not only foreign from their wishes, but the object of their abhorrence, the current suddenly became so strong in its favour, that it bore down all opposition. . . The great bulk of the people, and especially of the spirited and independent part of the community, came with surprising unanimity into the project of independence."[19] We see from Ramsey's remarks that Paine's contribution to the "events" was well remembered at the time of the Constitutional Convention.
It is strange that Paine is not given -- not only in world history, but even in American history --the place he seems to deserve. Let us turn to the opinions of some well-known modern scholars.
The works of Bernard Bailyn are among the classic contributions to the study of the ideology and history of the American Revolution. Bailyn asserts that even at the height of Common Sense's success, its influence upon Congress from May to July 1776, at the time when the Declaration of Independence had been worked out, and solemnly announced, is not evident. According to this scholar: "Thomas Paine's Common Sense is the most brilliant pamphlet written during the American Revolution, and one of the most brilliant pamphlets ever written in the English language .... For it is a work of genius." But "the closer we look at the details of what happened in Congress in early 1776 the less important Common Sense appears to have been."[20] Most likely, Bailyn means that Paine's name was not heard at any official discussion or debate, and that is true.
The observation of Pauline Maier is close to Bailyn's. No obvious evidence of Paine's influence is seen: "State and local resolutions on Independence said nothing about the flaws of the British constitution, or the future of mankind, or the birthday of a new world. They suggest, in fact, that Paine's influence was more modest than he claimed and than his more enthusiastic admirers assume."[21] The statements of fact are historically accurate but the opinion about Paine's rather "modest" effect on the events is open to dispute. The impact of some ideas might be immense, but, for a variety of reasons, the source of those ideas may not be so obvious to be identified.[22]
One more example may illustrate the attitude towards Paine among some outstanding modern scholars. Gordon S. Wood in his The Radicalism of the American Revolution claims: "There is a time for understanding the particular, and there is a time for understanding the whole." Three consequent parts of the research -- Monarchy, Republicanism, Democracy -- present a profound generalization of the data, collected by scholars inspecific fields of the history of the Revolution. Wood notes:

"Americans had become, almost overnight, the most liberal, the most democratic, the most commercially minded, and the most modern people of the world;" "the Revolution was the most radical and most far-reaching event in American history."[23]

And yet, there is nothing about Paine's ideological contribution to such an immense leap in American history.
If at the peak of the stunning success of Common Sense, Paine's name was never mentioned at official public events and in state documents, small wonder the author was not referred to eleven years later, at the Constitutional Convention, and not given his due in some modern studies on the American Revolution.
Why should this be so? In my opinion, the principal reason derives from the fact, which scholars have failed to take into account: Common Sense had been published anonymously. Only in the new edition of 1791 was Paine at long last identified as the author.[24] I have no evidence that Paine's authorship was known in the years between 1776 and 1791 in America, or in Europe, except to the leaders of the American Revolution and to a few others with whom he had dealings. The group might count some 2-3 thousand, the deputies of the Continental and provincial Congresses, their families, friends and surroundings included. The population of the colonies was about three million, that of England was about seven million. Common Sense was read in continental Europe as well. The readers might amount to several million. They suspected the author to be Franklin, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Washington, Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, Dickinson, Otis. All of these names were suggested and mentioned at the time. It's a common delusion to believe that Paine was known "to everyone" then.
To question this statement one should present any article, book or official document, published in the period from 1776 to 1791, in which Paine was named as the author of Common Sense, for everyone to know. Surely Paine was mentioned in private letters and diaries that were written by those who belonged to the "small" group to which I have referred previously. Does it mean, as the delusion runs, that it did not take very long for everyone to know who its author was? How could the "large" group get to know the name of the author, if Common Sense was published anonymously in 1776 and never republished until 1791? As far as I know, Paine as the author was not mentioned at that period in any official document, article, or book. The only exception, to the best of my knowledge, is the fact that David Ramsey named Paine as the author of Common Sense in his The History of the American Revolution, in 1789.[25]
There might be several reasons for Paine's preferring to remain unknown. One of them is that Paine was ambitious in a most peculiar way:his principles should be put forward, but never his personality. He published anonymously, or under various pseudonyms but mostly as "Common Sense," all of his more than forty works written between 1775-1791 (except for three "Letters" on the Affair of Silas Deane). His explanation helps to understand his motives: "In a great affair where the happiness of man is at stake, I love to work for nothing, and so fully am I under the influence of this principle that I should lose the spirit, the pleasure, and the pride of it, were I conscious that I looked for reward."[26] Paine did not seek any pecuniary interest from his literary works, and whatever money he did receive, he did not spend on himself, but on causes he believed in. The "reward" he objected to surely includes not only money, but personal glory as well. And Paine never claimed his authorship publicly then. Paine obstinately insisted on keeping a low profile. He grumbled that he "did not like to be always the proposer of new things, [as]it would have too assuming an appearance; and besides,[he] did not think the country was quite wrong enough to be put right." (emphasis. -- Paine).[27]
To the best of my knowledge, the fact of the pamphlet having been published anonymously and its effects, have never been subjected to thorough investigation and consideration.[28] But only by taking this circumstance into account one can grasp why Paine as the creator of novel ideas, vitally significant for the birth and development of this country, was never mentioned at the Constitutional Convention, or at least in its published records.
In my opinion, the very popularity and omnipresence of the anonymous Common Sense which was mostly spread in 1776, might well have created the feeling that its contents were somehow part of the atmosphere, "in the air," the emanation of some collective common sense. Paine's thoughts were assumed to be those of ordinary common sense that everyone, obviously, is sure to possess. It seems to be true even with the members of the Constitutional Convention, who obviously belonged to the "small" group and knew the author of Common Sense. Eleven years had passed since the pamphlet had been published, and as Paine had never claimed his authorship openly then they might have felt free not to bother about the origin of the ideas we are concerned with in this paper. When Paine's name became widely known in the 1790s, the American Revolution had already been won. The concepts of the famous pamphlet intended for its initial, pre-independence period, had already been thoroughly assimilated by the society. Those ideas seemed to have come somehow from the air, to such an extent that they were not, could not, be associated with any particular writer, but, rather, with everyone's own common sense. That might be the main cause of Paine going without mention: his ideas were deeply absorbed without identification of the author's name. Paine's goal had been attained: principles, not his personal fame as the author of renowned works, were what mattered for him then.
Thus it happened historically, that in accordance with the desire of its author, the gigantic influence of the famous pamphlet Common Sense on the American people -- on the architects of the American Constitution and of the Presidential oath among them -- occurred without its anonymous author being identified.
The aspiration for an ideal form of government, based on law, had been expressed by many thinkers long before the Age of the Democratic Revolutions. It had been found Utopian, unrealizable. Rousseau stated the thought in a most expressive way: "the great problem in politics, that I compare to squaring the circle in geometry, [is] to find a form of government which places the law above men."[29] Common Sense seems to offer an answer to the apparently solution-proof problem. The author delineates a new type of state heretofore unknown to human history: a democratic, representative republic based on a written Constitution, as the Supreme Law, that ascribes the highest value to individual human rights.
At least two of Paine's contemporaries appreciated the contribution as a discovery of tremendous importance for humanity: an anonymous correspondent of The Constitutional Gazette, (New York, New York) in February 24, 1776, and Alexander Radishchev (1749-1802), the first Russian radical, in the early 1780s.
An unidentified correspondent from Hartford in his letter to the New York popular newspaper, dated February 19 (that is, only forty days after the famous pamphlet was first published), states: "The pamphlet entitled "Common Sense," is indeed a wonderful production .... The author introduces a new system of politics, as widely different from the old, as the Copernican system is from the Ptolemaic .... This extraordinary performance .... contains as surprising a discovery in politics as the works of Sir Isaac Newton do in philosophy." [30] For the Russian writer, the author of Common Sense towered over all his contemporaries. Radishchev considered him the discoverer of truths so important for humanity, that he likened the impact of his ideas to the act of divine creation.[31]
Some modern scholars assume Paine's contribution to the problem. John Keane, Paine's biographer, states that Paine proclaimed "the new principle of representative democratic government, which Paine's good friend Thomas Jefferson later remarked, 'rendered useless almost everything written before on the structures of government'. "[32] Pauline Maier (I sense she is not a Paine admirer!) makes a remark: "It was in opening up new areas of discussion that Paine made his main contribution: Common Sense prodded debate from the then-exhausted themes of Britain, her King, and institutions, toward a new controversy over the internal structure of republican government."[33] She obviously meant the debate concerning the form of the government.
The evolution of the attitude towards Paine's discoveries is in three stages, which are common, I suggest, to the reception of almost any discovery. First, the belief that it cannot be true. Second, people say: well, perhaps there is something in it, after all. The last stage is: it is obvious, everyone knows it. 34] This third stage came for many Americans unbelievably quickly, in 1776, and has lasted until now. And as Paine's ideas have been so thoroughly imbibed without his name being connected, his contribution has been underestimated.
To be historically precise, one should distinguish between the original inventors or discoverers in some field, and those who improve upon the original. In his Common Sense, while introducing his ideas about a republican Constitution, Paine states: "If there is any true cause of fear respecting independence, it is because no plan is yet laid down. Men do not see their way out. Wherefore, as an opening into that business I offer the following hints; at the same time modestly affirming, that I have no other opinion of them myself, than that they may be the means of giving rise to something better. Could the straggling thoughts of individuals be collected, they would frequently form materials for wise and able men to improve into useful matter."[35]
In 1790 Edmund Burke expressed a similar idea in a more general way, using the same words "plan"and "business," in an inadvertent verbal echo of Paine in that passage: "in my course I have known, and, according to my measure, have co-operated with great men: and I have never yet seen any plan which has not been mended by the observations of those who were much inferior in understanding to the person who took the lead in the business."36] The "plan" is set out by one definite original author; then developing it into practical "business" requires the effort of many other people who follow the original thinker.
Is it not much more common to improve upon "plans" than to create them, to follow along a path already laid down by one trail-blazing political thinker? It, very likely, was Thomas Paine's "plan" in Common Sense that started the "business" of the American constitutional system. Many investigate the deeds and writings of those who improved Paine's "plan," but as a review of the scholarly literature suggests, despite the volume of writings on Paine, there is a palpable reluctance to investigate Paine's unprecedented role in furnishing the ideological basis for the American state structure based on the written Constitution. And probably the principal reason is that Paine's ideas were absorbed without identification of the author's name, or, more curiously, without attention to the matter.
The inscription on Thomas Paine's headstone in New Rochelle was engraved according to his will: "Thomas Paine (1737-1809), Author of Common Sense." Why did he not specify other works, such as Rights of Man, nearly one million copies of which were published during Paine's life?
In 1805 Paine gave the reason for his preference: "The independence of America would have added but little to her own happiness, and been of no benefit to the world, if her government had been formed on the corrupt models of the old world. It was the opportunity of beginning the world anew, as it were; and of bringing forward a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved that gave value to independence. The pamphlet Common Sense .... embraced both those objects. Mere independence might at some future time, have been effected and established by arms, without principle, but a just system of government could not. In short, it was the principle, at that time, that produced the independence; for until the principle spread itself abroad among the people, independence was not thought of, and America was fighting without an object. Those who know the circumstances of the times I speak of, know this to be true." (Italics - Paine)[37] Here Paine formulates the "principle" that makes the core of modern democracies: "a new system of government in which the rights of all men should be preserved" and proclaims himself the forerunner of the "system" that begins "the world anew.
According to Pauley's apt observation, the American President's oath is "the true crown of American constitutionalism."38] As is shown above, the Constitutional oath of President of the United States embodies the fundamental concept of Paine's "new system of government" as it is presented in Common Sense: the written Constitution of a democratic republic, as the Supreme Law, worked out by the Constitutional Convention, is to be the true King of this country. In my opinion, the contents of the Presidential oath, its history, and the very manner of its taking -- all testify to the fact that Common Sense, more than any other source, is its true ideological foundation.

The author holds the copyright on this article. Permission to reprint in whole or part must be requested of the author. Footnotes and references to this article are omitted and should be obtained from the author. Klara Rukshina is a historian, Thomas Paine scholar, author of works on P aine's contribution to the origin of modern democracies and his influence on social and political thought. Her degrees include Ph.D., History, Academy of Science of the USSR, Moscow, and M.A., Philology, LeningradUniversity , USSR. In 1993- 94 she was supported by a grant from IREX (The International Research and Exchanges Board) at the History Department of Harvard University to continue her studies on Thomas Paine. She is a former professor in the Department of Theory and History of Culture at Minsk State Linguistic University (Belarus).

Klara Rukshina is the author of Thomas Paine, Historic Portrait; Mary Wollstonecraft on the Rights of Woman; Mary Wollstonecraft and the French Revolution; Dostoevsky and Edmund Burke; Radishchev and the American Revolution; N.M. Karamzin and the English Democratic Literature, among the works published in journals of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR (Moscow). In the USA she published: Thomas Paine and the First Russian Radical, Alexander Radishchev; Common Sense as a Source of the Presidential Oath in the United States of America; An Early Comment on Paine's Common Sense; On the Origin of the Presidential Oath in the United States. She now lives in Cambridge, MA, and is currently working on her monograph, Thomas Paine and the Origin of Modern Democracies.


Dear Webmaster,

The Klara Rukshina essay, Common Sense as a Source of the Presidential Oath in the United States of America, states:

At the first inaugural George Washington spontaneously added the phrase [So help me God] that echoes the final sentence in the Coronation Oath. Since then, every subsequent president has said it.

The current state of scholarly awareness acknowledges the fact that there is no contemporary evidence to support the notion of George Washington having added "So help me God" to his presidential oath. See "I Do Solemnly Swear . . .” George Washington Takes the First Oath of Office, 1789 by Dr. Donald Kennon, Chief Historian of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.

Up until recently, historians’ accounts of Washington ’s first inaugural included the claim that at the conclusion of the oath Washington added the phrase, “so help me God.” No contemporary accounts of the inauguration made reference to the phrase, and the first time the claim appeared in print was some 60 years later. Most scholars now accept that there is no credible evidence that Washington said “so help me God.” That, however, doesn’t mean that the oath itself lacked a religious connotation. It was taken on a Bible and, moreover, the wording of the oath, “I do solemnly swear,” was a clear and forceful reference to the religious sanction given to the oath. The word “solemn,” derived from the Latin solemnis (consecrated, holy) carried a stronger religious connotation in the late 18th century than it does today when to most it simply means “grave, serious, or somber.”

When it comes to "every subsequent president" having said "So help me God" that extra-constitutional practice did not take hold until FDR's March 4, 1933 first inaugural ceremony. Herbert Hoover is that last president who is known not to have included those words while swearing his oath of office. (Actually, most presidents are not known to have added the now familiar religious codicil to their presidential oath.)

I suggest, in respectful memory of Klara Rukshina, that an editorial footnote be added to her excellent essay for the purpose of bringing her work up to date with current scholarly awareness.

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