What is Loyalty?: David Patterson’s Oath of Office

Today’s post comes from Christine Blackerby, Outreach Specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Draft of Ironclad Oath, June 1862. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Could a person who had sworn an oath to the Confederacy later loyally serve the United States?

One hundred and fifty years ago, the U.S. Senate wrestled with this question for the first time.

When states from the defeated Confederacy were readmitted to the Union, some of those elected to Congress were the same people who had served the Confederate government or the governments of the seceded states. Citizens and government officials alike asked how these men could be trusted to serve the Union that they had so recently fought against.

One tool for judging the loyalty of potential office holders was the Ironclad Oath of 1862, a law passed by Congress during the Civil War to deter sabotage by Confederate sympathizers. The Ironclad Oath required that any federal officeholder (members of Congress were added in 1864) swear that he had never served a government in hostility to the United States.

The Honorable David T. Patterson, by Mathew Brady, ca. 1860–65. (National Archives Identifier 525633)

The Ironclad Oath appeared to draw a firm line in the sand, but that firmness was tested immediately after the first Confederate state—Tennessee—was readmitted to the Union.

On July 26, 1866, David Trotter Patterson appeared in the Senate and presented his credentials—the signed and certified document that served as evidence that the state of Tennessee elected him to Congress.


Traditionally, credentials are immediately accepted by the Secretary of the Senate, the person takes the oath of office, and the new Senator is admitted as a member of Congress.

But when Patterson appeared, several Senators expressed concern that Patterson could not honestly take the Ironclad Oath because he had served as a judge under Tennessee’s Confederate government, and therefore his credentials should not be accepted.

The credentials were referred to the Judiciary Committee with instructions to inquire into Patterson’s qualifications for holding office. Patterson was turned away while the committee investigated.

David T. Patterson’s credentials, referred to the Committee on the Judiciary, July 26, 1866. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

A day later, the Judiciary Committee issued Senate Report #139. The report declared that Patterson was qualified to hold the office of Senator, as he had been a staunch Union supporter during the Civil War and had remained loyal to the nation throughout his life.

After first taking an oath in 1854 to be a circuit judge in Tennessee, David Patterson had remained in office for the appointed eight years, even though he did not support secession in 1861.

When his term expired in 1862, he was reluctantly persuaded by other Union supporters in Tennessee to run for reelection, as the position would enable him to continue to protect Union loyalists from civil and military repression.

After winning the seat, Patterson took the oath to uphold the Constitution of Tennessee and of the Confederate States. However, he continued to support the Union.

The report recommended that the Senate pass a resolution stating that Patterson was qualified to hold a seat as a Senator from Tennessee.

The resolution brought about much debate in the Senate.

Senator Daniel Clark (R-NH) said, “There is no question, I think, about the facts . . . [that Patterson] was such a Union man as to put some of us to shame.”

SR 144, 39th C--Joint Resolution re David Patterson (SEN 39A-B3)
Senate Resolution 144 regarding David T. Patterson, Senator-elect from Tennessee, July 27, 1866. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Clark wanted to admit Patterson to the Senate immediately because “the object of the oath is to prevent rebels and secessionists from coming into the Senate, not to exclude Union men like the Senator-elect from Tennessee.”

Senator Lyman Trumbull (D-IL), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, disagreed with the report.

While he admitted that Patterson was indeed a Union loyalist during the rebellion, Trumbull argued that the former Confederate judge would have to violate the Ironclad Oath in order to take office.

Senator Trumbull and many others felt that receiving Patterson into the Senate would render the law null—a dangerous action in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Senator Jacob M. Howard (R-MI) agreed, saying, “We made the law. Let us not be the first to break it.”

One proposed solution was to pass Senate Resolution 144, which would have allowed Patterson to simply skip the part of the oath about never having “exercise[d] the functions of any office whatever; under any authority or pretended authority in hostility to the United States.”

However, this effort failed.

Representative Horace Maynard (Unconditional Unionist-TN) judged that Patterson could take the Ironclad Oath without reservation. Maynard said, “The construction that I have always given to this part of the oath…is this: not that an office was held, but that it was held ‘in hostility to the United States,’ constitutes the disqualification…. Judge Patterson’s holding the office was not done ‘in hostility to the government of the United States,’ but was an act of known, understood, and recognized hostility to the southern confederacy. So, then, it seems to me that the oath could have been taken with a safe conscience.”

With this idea in mind, the Senate relied on its Article I, Section 5 constitutional powers—“Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members.” The Senate therefore moved to consider a simple resolution that expressed the view of the Senate that Patterson’s loyalty was not in question. The simple resolution stated:

Resolved, That the Hon. David T. Patterson, upon taking the oaths required by the Constitution and laws, be admitted to a seat in the Senate of the United States.

After a little more debate, the Senate voted to adopt the simple resolution, 21-11.

The next day, July 28, 1866, David Patterson took the oath of office, including the full wording of the Ironclad Oath, and took his seat in the Senate.

David T. Patterson’s oath of office, July 28, 1866. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Patterson was just the first of many from the former Confederacy to be elected to Congress. While the evidence of Patterson’s loyalty to the Union was abundant and uncontested, other members-elect had less clear histories of loyalty.

For two years, Congress debated the loyalty and qualifications of many former Confederate members-elect. It made individual exceptions from saying the full oath for some of them via joint resolutions like the one that failed to pass for David Patterson.

In 1868, Congress passed a public law prescribing an alternative oath for “any person who has participated in the late rebellion, and from whom all legal disabilities arising there from have been removed by act of Congress.”

Northerners immediately pointed to the new law’s unfair double standard that required loyal Unionists to take the Ironclad Oath’s harsh first section while permitting ex-Confederates to ignore it.

In 1884, the first section of the Ironclad Oath was quietly repealed, leaving the affirmation of constitutional allegiance that is still used today.

4 thoughts on “What is Loyalty?: David Patterson’s Oath of Office

  1. What type of oath did George Graham Vest take in 1870 when he entered the US Senate. He had been in the Missouri Senate before the War, served in the Confederacy Senate during the War, returned to Missouri where he was elected to serve in the US Senate? He certainly served the Southern cause, since he left Missouri after the popular vote of the people rejected the succession ballot which he had supported. [He had been a slave holder before the war.]

    1. George Graham Vest began his first Senate term in 1879 during 1st session of the 46th Congress. Prior to his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Congress enacted a bill (H.R. 869) that established an oath that former Confederate sympathizers and government officials must take as an alternative to the Ironclad Oath. The bill is transcribed below:[1]

      [Begin transcription)

      Be it enacted by the Senate and the House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, that whenever any person who has participated in the late rebellion, and from whom all legal disabilities arising therefrom have been removed by Act of Congress by a vote of two-thirds of each house, has been or shall be elected or appointed to any office or place of trust in or under the government of the United States, he shall, before entering upon the duties thereof, instead of the oath prescribed by the act of July two, eighteen hundred and sixty-two take and subscribe the following oath or affirmation: I.A.B., do solemnly swear (or affirm), that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the Office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

      [End transcription]

      H.R. 869 was passed by the House on March 6, 1868, and entered into law by President Andrew Johnson on July 13, 1868.[2]

      Senator-elect Vest took the above oath along with seven other senators-elect from as many former Confederate states.[3]

      [1] H.R. 869, an act prescribing an oath of office to be taken by persons from whom legal disabilities shall have been removed; Original Engrossed Bills Nos. 813 – 1100; Original bills and resolutions, 40th Congress; Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233; National Archives, Washington, DC.

      [2] House Journal, 40th Cong., 2nd sess., 1061.

      [3] Congressional Record, 46th Cong., 1st sess., 1879, 9, pt. 1: 1

  2. Thank you for your reply to my inquiry. Sen Vest was not from a Confederate State. Missouri did not succeed from the Union. It seems the statement with footnote 2 may indicate that he was.
    Thanks, I had looked for it but did not know where to find it.

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