Presidential Inauguration: 3 Great Presidents Who Violated Their Oaths of Office


Over the weekend, PolicyMic pundit Christian Rice wrote an article spearing President Obama for what he sees as failures to uphold his oath of office, reprinted here:

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 Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

While I agree with some of Rice's points and disagree with others (mostly on gun control), accusing presidents of breaking their oath to act according to the Constitution is nothing new and I would like to take this opportunity to highlight some of the most egregious instances of "Presidents Behaving Badly." Here, for your consideration, are three of our most famous presidents, whose actions obviously violated the terms and conditions of this verbal job contract sworn before the Chief Justice.

1. Thomas Jefferson, for the Louisiana Purchase

One of the greatest legacies of Jefferson's presidency was on of the most unconstitutional. Back in 1803, President Jefferson, who had a philosophical adherence to the strict letter of the Constitution, found himself in a dilemma. See, nothing in the Constitution allows for the expansion of the United States except for the admission of areas wishing to become states – nowhere does it say that the government could take or purchase land outside of the young country's borders. In a letter to Attorney General John Breckenridge, not to be confused with the later Senator, President Jefferson specifically says that with the Purchase, “The executive, in seizing the fugitive occurrence which so much advances the good of their country, have done an act beyond the Constitution.” Sounds like a confession to me, Mr. Jefferson.

2. Abraham Lincoln and habeas corpus

Habeas corpus is a legal action whereby a prisoner calls for review of his or her imprisonment by a government, and is a check against unlawful imprisonment. However, the Constitution allows for Congress to suspend the right to a writ of habeas corpus only “in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.” It's Article 1, Section 9, Clause 2, if you're curious.

Well, Honest Abe honestly ignored the fact that Congress is the group with the authority to suspend habeas corpus when in 1861, near the beginning of the Civil War, fearing that Maryland might secede and leave Washington surrounded by Confederate states, Lincoln suspended the right. Lincoln's generals were relieved – they could simply round up dissenters. But the courts weren't quite so pleased, and the U.S. Circuit Court in Maryland, guest-led by Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney, quickly struck down Lincoln's suspension in Ex Parte Merryman. Trouble was, Lincoln completely ignored the courts, but eventually released most prisoners in 1862, ten months before Congress itself did suspend habeas corpus.

3. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Japanese Internment Camps

World War II was not a good time to be Japanese in the United States. Two months after the infamous bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the not-quite-as-infamous Executive Order 9066, which allowed military commanders to designate areas of the country from which “any or all persons may be excluded.”

Eventually, roughly one-third of the country fell into these zones, and over the next four years, roughly 115,000 people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were forced into government-run, bare-bones camps, leaving behind and losing most of their possessions.

This detainment was a pretty clear violation of the Fifth Amendment's protection against imprisonment and deprivation of property without due process. It was one of the single most racist actions our government has ever undertaken, and recognizing the disgrace of the program, surviving detainees were awarded $20,000 each through a pair of bills in 1988 and 1992. Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush have both issued formal apologies for the camps.

Bonus: William Henry Harrison

He was only president for 32 days. How can you really defend anything in the three weeks between when you start a job and when you get sick with the cold that turns in to pneumonia and kills you?