What better way to make that point than swearing on George Washington's own copy of the Constitution? Why Washington? Few American leaders have been more emphatic about not abusing the power of office.
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Right-wing pundits have launched an attack against CIA Director John Brennan because he took the oath of office with a hand on George Washington's copy of the Constitution. Of course, that's not directly the problem; what they are so incensed about is that he didn't use a Bible and that the original version of the Constitution did not include the Bill of Rights. This is thin gruel for such outrage. In fact, Brennan should be applauded.

As the CIA press release indicates, Director Brennan specifically requested that the National Archives provide a document demonstrating that this is a nation of laws and that he would be bound by the laws of the land. What better way to make that point than swearing on George Washington's own copy of the Constitution? Why Washington? Few American leaders have been more emphatic about not abusing the power of office; Washington famously, and repeatedly, refused to take power that was his for the taking, defending the sovereign power of the people through their Congress. Brennan swore on a document that specifies that only Congress has the authority to "declare war," that the "Constitution, and the laws of the United States... shall be the supreme law of the land," that he shall "support this Constitution," and that "[a]ll legislative powers... shall be vested in... Congress." Brennan swore to uphold these essential principles which, on more than one occasion, have been ignored by CIA directors and other officers of the United States. To claim, as Liberty University's Mat Staver does that this is "undermining our Constitution" takes a mighty twist.

What, then, is the problem? First, the Bible. The Constitution does not require that a Bible be used for the oath of office. In fact, in Article VI, the specified oath is followed immediately by the demand that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." Nor does the oath require that an official swear "so help me God." This omission was not an oversight -- that requirement existed in several state laws at the time. The Founders reasoned that such oaths were useless, ignored by dishonest men, and only discouraged some conscientious men (who refused to swear under a strict reading of the Ten Commandments) from serving.

Second, the critics are certainly correct that the Constitution as originally adopted, the version that Brennan used, did not have the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing all Americans that the federal government must respect freedoms of speech, press, and religion, that "no person" (notice, the term is "no person," not "no citizen" or "no American") shall "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law," that no "unreasonable searches and seizures" shall be made, and that "cruel and unusual punishment [shall not be] inflicted." In retrospect, Brennan should have asked that Washington's (or James Madison's) copy of the Bill of Rights be added so that he could swear on both (in retrospect, I am sure that he wishes that he had), but it is worth remembering that the Founding Fathers initially believed that a Bill of Rights was not necessary, because officials bound by the Constitution, and by laws made by their fellow citizens, would not have any authority to violate those rights. Nor does it matter that the document that Brennan swore upon did not have the Bill of Rights: He is fully bound by its terms, which he full well knows and certainly accepts.

Director Brennan, bravo for swearing to uphold the law of the land and recognizing that this is a nation of laws, and not of men!

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