Toleration, Liberty

I Do Solemnly Swear, Or Maybe I Just Swear

It has long been a contention of mine that you could probably write 10 political blogposts and then just recycle them as needed since the same bad political ideas keep resurfacing. In order to test that theory (and put some old writing of mine out where it might actually get read) I’m going to pull some posts from a much-neglected personal blog of mine over to BHL when they seem relevant. Today’s post was written back in May of 2012, and the need to repost it has been spurred by the appearance of the Super Awesome and Groovy Idea of loyalty oaths for business. The loyalty oath, as we shall see, is a very old, very popular, very bad political idea.

2012 Sarah will now tell you all about it.


Apparently yesterday was proclaimed “Loyalty Day” here in the United States of America. We are, so I gather, meant to “rededicate ourselves to the common good, to the cornerstones of liberty, equality, and justice, and to the unending pursuit of a more perfect Union.”

While I deeply appreciate the sophisticated use of the nested Oxford commas there, you’re going to have to forgive me if I decline to proclaim my loyalty and if, in truth, the whole notion of doing so makes me distinctly queasy.

A brief tutorial on the Oxford comma. You’re welcome.

The time and place that I study–early modern England–is rife with loyalty oaths, and oaths of allegiance, and homilies on obedience. Henry VIII started a vogue for Oaths of Supremacy when he established himself as the head of the Church of England. Of course, he also made it high treason to imagine the death of the King, so he clearly had a few issues.  Homilies on obedience were sermons that were issued by the government and required to be given from the pulpits of the Church of England on specific days–often the anniversaries of rebellions, uprisings, or plots. They tended to sound a lot like this:

[W]hat a perilous thing were it to commit unto the subjects the judgment, which prince is wise and godly, and his government good, and which is otherwise ; as though the foot must judge of the head : an enterprise very heinous, and must needs breed rebellion. For who else be they that are most inclined to rebellion, but such haughty spirits? From whom springeth such foul ruin of realms ? Is not rebellion the greatest of all mischiefs ? And who are most ready to the greatest mischiefs, but the worst men ? Rebels therefore the worst of all subjects are most ready to rebellion, as being the worst of all vices, and farthest from the duty of a good subject : as, on the contrary part, the best subjects are most firm and constant in obedience, as in the especial and peculiar virtue of good subjects. (1570, in response to the 1569  rebellion in favor of Mary, Queen of Scots)

And they tended to argue that, as monarchs were given to a nation by God, there was no proper course but to obey the given monarch–good or ill–as if he or she were God. If you got a crappy monarch, you just obeyed and hoped your obedience would persuade God to remove said monarch.

What’s fun about homilies on obedience and oaths of supremacy, allegiance, and loyalty is that they show up most often when things are slipping. Henry VIII, for example, and that 1569 rebellion. They aren’t a sign that all is well and that everyone loves the monarch. Because if things were going swimmingly, no one would need to require people to state their loyalty. After Guy Fawkes and his friends tried to blow up Parliament in 1605, James I and VI came up with the Oath of Allegiance  which required all English subjects to declare loyalty to the King, and to reject the Pope’s powers.  What’s great about James I and VI is that when he gets rolling he makes Henry VIII’s claim that one’s personal imaginings could be high treason look like child’s play. Here he is in 1610, in a speech to Parliament.

God has power to create, or destroy, make, or unmake at his pleasure…and the like power have kings: they make and unmake their subjects; they have power of raising and casting down, of life and of death; judges over all their subjects and in all cases…They have power to exalt low things and abase high things, and make of their subjects like men at the chess: a pawn to take a bishop or a knight…

After about six straight years of reading this kind of thing  you start cheering when you get to read pamphlets with titles like Killing Noe Murder in defense of the right of the people to resist tyranny, even to the point of regicide. And way before that, you feel really grateful to be living in the 21st century, in America, where oaths of loyalty have never been our kind of thing.



Published on:
Author: Sarah Skwire
  • Libertymike


  • Libertymike


    • Libertymike

      Ooops. Perhaps I turned off my sarcometer.

  • Libertymike


  • TracyW

    That was a very different political system with very different attitudes. And, given what happened to Charles I and James II I don’t think loyalty oaths were that effective.

  • adrianratnapala

    We can take heart that the 21st century loyalty statement, thing, whatever is nice and vague with lots of abstractions. Not even an oath, and far less sinister than even “…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can
    do for your country.”

    But S.S. makes a good point. Even I, a proud nationalist, find the idea of a loyalty day creepy. And I am proud, in the name of Elizabeth II of Australia (but only the 1st of Scotland), Great Britain and various other sundry Pink Bits, Queen, to piss on the very idea of loyalty day, an idea which reeks of Americanism. What can you expect from such rebellious scum? They think that because a government was established by the people, it is something to be proud of.

    Overall, this loyalty day issue is not a big thing. In 2008, candidate Barack Obama was mildly inconvenienced because he didn’t wear a flag pin, or something. In 2012, President Obama wrote a silly letter to the nation to compensate. If such things really mattered, he would not be president.

    • martinbrock

      I piss on the very idea that the United State was established by “the people”. I’m not remotely loyal to it or to any other state, and I never will be, so mouthing some loyalty oath, for fear of state reprisal if I don’t, can only be a charade … not that I wouldn’t mouth it with a gun to my head.

      More to the point of Sarah’s link, international corporations exiting the jurisdiction of the U.S. for a friendlier jurisdiction are praiseworthy, and we should be celebrating their foresight and following their lead if the change satisfies our preferences.

  • Theresa Klein

    Rebels therefore the worst of all subjects are most ready to rebellion,

    Were people really this dumb in the 17th century?

  • CJColucci

    That’s a party I’m just not going to, Oxford comma version or not.

  • Mike Wasikowski

    Sarah, do you believe there is any difference between taking an oath and making an affirmation?

  • Jod

    Great post. Do you know anything about the history of swearing on a bible in courts? Jesus expressly tells his disciples not to swear to god (‘let your words be yay yay, nay nay, etc.’) and yet for the longest time atheists were considered unable to give testimony because they refused to swear on a bible. Were people swearing on bibles in the 16th C?

  • Debbie Dresner

    This is dreadful- ‘Henry VIII started a vogue for Oaths of Supremacy’- really?
    That’s your theory of history- vogues just get started by fashion icons and then…urm- everybody has to take an oath or somefin.
    If you have access to Wikipedia, you must know that your just so story is simply wrong and what’s more will be recognised as wrong by any English speaking Intellectual from any part of the Globe.
    So, you have written a post for stupid people who speak your own language but are stupid or habitual liars or admire the union of such qualities in people of their own ethnicity or gender posting on BHL.
    Surely, Libertarians understand that ‘Oaths’ mean shite doxastically. I am not aware that BHL has a Superman pragmatics- i.e. always use language such that you speak the truth such that Lex Luthor can fuck Lois Lane up.’

    There is nothing even faintly Libertarian- mathematically, Libertarianism is better than Socialism coz it can too use mimetics, Oracles, etc and what’s more knows the Cantor Reflection Principle as interpreted by Ackermann and Godel- about this website.
    It is Stalinist shite.
    I’m a right wing cunt- I accept that my ideas about Medicine or Whatever- despite my being extremely Black- are probably totally crap compared to some guy with an Ashkenazi Jewish type name- i.e. all you White peeeps- and fuck is wrong with that?
    I won’t mention the young Gladstone’s proposal to Christianize England, nor Milo from Catch 22, but I will say- shame on you. Recycle your shite in the toilet.
    Bad baby.


    I pledge allegiance to the Flag…