Though not constitutionally mandated, it’s customary for the new president to swear the oath of office on a Bible. Incoming presidents usually choose a Bible with personal or historical significance. George H.W. Bush, for example, was sworn in on George Washington’s inaugural Bible, while Bill Clinton took the oath of office on a family edition. President-elect Obama is the first to choose the Lincoln inaugural Bible.
Obama is known to be a longtime admirer of Lincoln, and there are many similarities between the two men: Both are from Illinois, both had relatively little political experience prior to being elected to office, and both assumed their leadership during a time of crisis.
Brent Colburn, spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, says Obama’s choice of the Lincoln Bible is not a surprise, but it adds to the momentousness of the occasion. “This Bible is a part of the nation’s history, and we will be celebrating another touchstone in history on January 20,” Colburn says.
All photographs by Michaela McNichol
The Lincoln inaugural Bible has been in the Library of Congress’s collection since 1928, when it was donated by the widow of Lincoln’s son. Clark Evans, the head of reference services for Rare Books and Special Collections, used white cotton gloves to display the book at the press viewing.
Lincoln was inaugurated for the first time on March 4, 1861. He arrived on a train from Springfield hours before the ceremony, so most of his belongings were still packed away and he couldn’t use his family Bible. Instead, he used a Bible originally purchased by William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court.
The chief justice at the time, R.B. Taney, was the author of the majority opinion in the Dred Scott case; he was no friend to Lincoln or emancipation. Taney administered Lincoln’s inaugural oath. “When Lincoln put his hand on that Bible, it was one of the most fraught moments in history,” says Evans. “Now for the average American, the significance of the connection between the great emancipator and the first African-American president is profound.”
This Bible is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal border around the outside edges of the front and back covers. All of the edges are heavily gilded, and in the center of the top cover is a shield of gold wash over white metal with the words “Holy Bible.” It’s a compact and thick King James Bible that was published in 1853 by Oxford University Press.
After Obama’s inauguration, the Bible will be on display at the Library of Congress from February 12 through May 9 as part of an exhibition on Lincoln’s bicentennial.