The Oath and Public Office

In light of current events, I thought it might be appropriate to visit the concept of taking an oath as one serves in public office.

An oath is a sacred promise that has ethical, moral, and legal implications with regard to behaviors that either honor the oath or violate it.

There is little ambiguity.

As I’ve mentioned, I recently read Jon Meacham’s wonderful biography of Thomas Jefferson. I’m now digging into Harlow Giles Unger’s biography of Lafayette. They share a common age and common destinies as two Old Money Guys who decided to forego the comfortable life of inherited wealth and mix it up in public life.

While we look back on them as victorious champions of democracy, reading their biographies sheds light on another side of public service: the beating both of them took at different points in their lives for the responsibilities and positions each took on.

The details of their personal histories are secondary to the overarching theme: the oath you take to uphold the Constitution, or fight for liberty, or whatever noble endeavor you’re going to pursue, is very likely at some point to cause you discomfort, pain, or downright trouble.

Why? Because public opinion, events, and other people’s agendas are fluid and ever-changing. What you take an oath to uphold is solid, unmoving, and permanent. So, if you’re going to stand your ground and uphold the oath you’ve sworn to uphold, you’re inevitably going to endure some less than pleasant experiences.

Such is the sacrificial nature of public service. Its core is the very opposite of making a profit or any other form of personal gain.

Done right, it’s more often than not going to cost you: personally, professionally, or, in extreme cases, permanently.

If you enter public life and come out unscathed, richer, universally popular, and uncontroversial, I’m going to say that you probably haven’t done it right. You haven’t stood for a just principle at a difficult time. You haven’t laid it all on the line to hold an unpopular, but ethical, position on an important issue.

Jefferson was called every name in the book–in public and in print–by his contemporaries with whom he had political differences. Lafayette, a hero in America for his efforts in our Revolutionary War, was thrown in prison in France later in life, as was his family.

That ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ business isn’t just a moving phrase in a monologue. It’s reality for those who stand for something in a world that sometimes falls for anything.

So for those of you considering public service, understand this: you’re going to take an oath. The more responsibility you take on, the sharper the edge of that oath is going to be because the potential stakes are going to be higher. The possible rewards–recognition, power, money–are going to be larger. And the burden of doing what’s right is going to be heavier.

So know before you go, but go just the same. We need principled, dedicated people in public service, now more than ever.

  • BGT

8 thoughts on “The Oath and Public Office

  1. Byron, I couldn’t agree more.

    I think that a good starting point is to draw a line in the sand and quit holding up some of the past individuals as paragons of leadership and integrity. They were, and are, decidedly not.

    If they made what I would call ‘genuine mistakes’ – lack of knowledge, hasty decisions based on erroneous rather than devious information and suchlike, learn, forgive and move on. But when they have enriched themselves (after) by virtue of high office such as the presidency for example , cut them loose and measure the newcomers against a new standard.

    I think the US has only had one president in relatively recent times who did not enrich himself through the office of the presidency and that was President Carter. He made a conscious decision not to and to the best of my knowledge has stuck to it.

    My suggestion applies to all nations and governments. Irrespective. There are no exceptions.

    Good topic at a good moment.


  2. Thank you for this very timely and relevant topic. In order to prevent self-enrichment through the use of public office, the nation needs to go back to the tradition of having Old Money hold public office. Refined, understated, more humble and less flashy would be ideal. This standard should apply to BOTH sides of the aisle.

    Typically, with ‘New Money’, the sudden influx of wealth tends to hold greater value to some than practicing integrity in these positions. In fact, it wasn’t too long ago that Old Money held public office (Kennedy’s).

    Since Old Money is or has been ‘secure’ financially for awhile, I would think that they would consider a public office role an opportunity to volunteer their time and leadership. Not an opportunity to line their pockets.

      1. Happy holidays Byron to you and your family! I look forward to the future success of this site in 2020 and beyond.

  3. From a (former) Washington wife: know the toll that your public life will have on your family and prepare them for it. It needs to be met ‘head-on.’ It truly is a family way of life.

  4. Let me clarify my last comment – I am STILL a wife (38 years)….I just left Washington DC several years ago.

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