In America today, there is a vast divide. Americans, regardless of racial, geographical, or religious background, are divided on topics as varied as income inequality, social justice, tax policy, voter fraud, trans-rights, you name it. On January 6, 2021, in Washington DC, we saw that divide rise just a bit more to the surface. The question I’d like to consider is: were those people who entered the U.S. Capitol building that day domestic terrorists or were they simply fulfilling their “American duties” or their previous Oath of Office, an Oath that requires them to, “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic?”

On Wednesday, January 6, 2021 protestors unlawfully entered the U.S. Capitol building in our nation’s capital. Many of them proclaimed that they were there to stop the confirmation of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States. Some of the people who entered the Capitol that day entered forcefully and others were seemingly let in the front door by the Capitol Police. Some who entered said that they were there to “Uphold their Oath.” Others were no doubt there just to be a part of the chaos.

I have little doubt that some, or all, of the Capitol Police Officers, certainly believed they were fulfilling their oath and obligation to America while protecting the mecca of American politics by preventing the protestors’ access to the United States Capitol building. Some politicians, in the days following, no doubt believed they were “defending the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic” as they spoke out against the actions in a public outcry and called for more regulation and prosecution. And, some of the Federal Investigators with the FBI and other organizations no doubt believe that they are currently fulfilling their oath to “defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic” by seeking the prosecution of those who entered the Capitol unlawfully. 

I’m just left with a couple of questions from it all. First, what does, “I will support and defend the Constitution from all enemies, foreign or domestic” actually mean from a historical perspective? And secondly, how are people (some of whom are even on the same side of the aisle politically, socially, or economically) so divided on what it means to “abide by” that phrase?

Oath of enlistment
Enlistees raise their hands to take the service oath during a mass Army enlistment ceremony in New York’s Times Square, Nov. 10, 2018. (EJ Hersom)

What’s in an Oath?

Historically, the first time we see language similar to our current Oath of Office used on a national level was in 1789 when the Senate introduced its First Act: The Oath Act. The first Oath read: “I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States.” According to The Senate’s official website, the first Oath of Office was routinely used over the next 72 years and remained unchanged until the start of the U.S. Civil War. 

Then, “The outbreak of the Civil War quickly transformed the routine act of oath-taking into one of enormous significance. At a time of shifting and uncertain loyalties, when members believed the nation had more to fear from northern traitors than southern soldiers, Congress responded with several new oaths.” One of the new — or updated — oaths that Congress soon incorporated was the one we all are familiar with today. It was created in July 1861 during an emergency session of the U.S. Congress. Congress later created an even stiffer “Ironclad Test Oath” that public servants were forced to recite and even sign their name to, but it was later repealed in 1884, leaving us only with the one we recognize today.

Knowing the origin of the Oath of Office we recognize and still use gives us some insight into how it should be interpreted today. The Oath was instituted in one of the greatest times of turmoil our nation had yet known. Congress was trying to determine where peoples’ loyalties were and used the Oath as a way to wade through that confusion. 

I tried to find a time in recent American history when an individual who had taken the Oath of Office had been convicted with a criminal offense for breaking their oath, but could not find any instances. Not to say there aren’t any, but if there are it surely isn’t obvious. What I did find, however, is that breaking the Oath of Office is a felony — but “barely.” Why “barely?” Because in 18 U.S.C. 1918, it is written that if you break your oath of office and are found guilty, then you: “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year and a day, or both.” The reason I say it is “barely” a felony is that the maximum sentence for a simple misdemeanor is 365 days and you can only be jailed for 366 days for breaking the Oath of Office. Not exactly a huge punishment.