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In 2009, Chief Justice John G. Roberts and President Barack Obama misstated the presidential oath, leading to a do-over the next evening at the White House. It was the first time in eighty years that the oath had been improperly administered. A chapter in Democracy's Big Day entitled "Let's Hear It for the Girl" tells what happened back in 1929 when Chief Justice Taft (at the left in the picture) administered the oath to President Hoover:


On March 1, 1929, three days before the upcoming inauguration, Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote the following note to President-elect Herbert Hoover:

I have thought it would be wise to put into written form the details of the ceremony of taking the oath, so that, subject to your approval, you and I shall know what we are to do.

The ceremony will begin behind the stand where the oath is to be taken, you with your back to the Senate, and I with my back to the House. Without any preliminaries, I am to say:

“You, Herbert Hoover, do solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of your ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

You will then answer “I do.”

Sure enough, three days later, as millions of Americans listened to a live radio broadcast of the ceremony, Taft recited the oath and Hoover said just those two words. Those listeners included an eighth-grade history class in Walden, New York. One of the students in that class was thirteen-year-old Helen Terwilliger. Helen had memorized the oath, and she was amazed to hear the chief justice conclude, “preserve, maintain, and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Although no one else had noticed such an error, Helen was certain Taft had mistakenly substituted the word “maintain” for the word “protect.” She was so sure, in fact, that she wrote a polite letter to the chief justice in Washington to tell him so.

Taft then wrote back to Helen, “You are quite right that the words of the oath mentioned in the Constitution are ‘preserve, protect and defend,’ but my memory is not always accurate and one sometimes becomes a little uncertain. … It certainly did not prevent the validity of the oath.” But the seventy-one-year-old Taft also advised Helen, “You are mistaken in your report of what I did say. What I said was ‘preserve, maintain and protect.’ What I should have said was ‘preserve, protect and defend,’ and you may attribute the variation to the defect of an old man’s memory.”

Even after the young critic received this letter from Taft, she stood her ground. She insisted that her version of the chief justice’s mistake reflected what had really taken place in Washington. To settle the issue, the Fox Film Corporation, Pathe News, and Paramount News all checked their inauguration sound films. On March 14, these three organizations unanimously declared that Helen had correctly quoted Taft’s words. Not only had Taft misstated the oath; he had also been mistaken in his recollection of the particulars of his original error. Or, as the New York World reflected on Helen’s accuracy: “She, not the Chief Justice, was right about the way in which the Chief Justice was wrong.”

Upon learning the error of his ways, Chief Justice Taft later laughed and said, “I think you’ll have to get along with what I’ve already said. After all, I don’t think it’s important." When Americans went to movie theaters that week, they got to see and hear the sound newsreel of the ceremony. Then, absolutely everyone knew the truth: little Helen Terwilliger had been right all along.

Photo credit: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, National Photo Company Collection, reproduction no. LC-USZ62-17145.


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