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An inaugural blunder

Today’s post is from David Steinbach, intern in the National Archives History Office.

Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1929. (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

Chief Justice William H. Taft administering the oath of office to Herbert Hoover, March 4, 1929. (Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum)

William Howard Taft had unusually extensive experience with the Presidential oath of office. In 1909, Taft recited the text on the steps of the Capitol to become the 27th President of the United States.

Sixteen years later, as Chief Justice of the United States, Taft stood on the other side of the Bible and administered Calvin Coolidge’s swearing in.

By the time of Herbert Hoover’s inauguration ceremony in 1929, Taft should have mastered the oath. But the Chief Justice blundered nonetheless, substituting erroneously the phrase “preserve, maintain, and defend” for the traditional “preserve, protect, and defend.”

Letter from Chief Justice William Howard Taft to President Herbert Hoover Regarding the Oath of Office, 03/01/1929. (National Archives Identifier 7722952)

Letter from Chief Justice William Howard Taft to President Herbert Hoover Regarding the Oath of Office, 03/01/1929. (National Archives Identifier
7722952)

Taft could not blame lack of preparation. In the exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” currently open at the National Archives in Washington, DC, we see a particularly interesting letter from the Chief Justice to incoming President Hoover. The communication is dated March 1, 1929—three days before the inauguration. Taft described in great detail where the two men would stand, what text that he would recite, what Hoover’s response should be, and the logistics surrounding the Bible—all with the goal, as Taft asserted, that “you and I shall know what we are to do.”

Ironically, it was Taft, not Hoover, who made the false step.

Taft’s error may have gone overlooked were it not for the attentiveness of Helen Terwilliger, a 13-year-old from New York. Listening on the radio, the teenager caught the slip-up and wrote Taft a letter explaining the blunder.

In his reply, Taft acknowledged he had made a mistake but disagreed regarding the error itself, claiming that he had instead said “preserve, maintain, and protect.”

Eventually, three different news networks delved into their footage and concluded that Terwilliger’s account was correct—Taft had been mistaken not just once at the inauguration, but for a second time a few days after the fact.

Taft was by no means the last to botch the delivery of the Presidential oath. In 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts and incoming President Barack Obama shared an awkward silence when Roberts misplaced the word “faithfully.” Like Taft, Roberts had prepared extensively for the ceremony. But both Chief Justices realized that on the big stage, all their rehearsals—even the detailed instructions and predetermined movements Taft shared with the President—could not save them from error.

The exhibit “Making Their Mark: Stories through Signatures” is free and open to the public in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, through January 5, 2015.

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