Why Do We Raise Our Right Hand When Testifying Before the Court?

It’s a common sight in courtrooms across the country: A person on the stand is asked to raise their right hand and then they’re asked the question, “Do you solemnly swear or affirm that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” While most people are familiar with the oath of sworn testimony, many may not be as familiar with exactly why we're asked to raise our right hand. Why not raise our left hand? It all started in the criminal courts of 17th century London, when judges could choose from a wide range of punishments, which varied in severity from a full pardon to the death sentence. However, judges lacked a sophisticated means to maintain a criminal defendant’s records to help them assess which penalty was most appropriate to the defendant’s circumstances. As a result, judges sometimes chose to punish criminals with a branding. That meant literally applying a branding iron to the convicted defendant’s right hand. Should the convict appear before the court again, they would be required to raise their right hand, which would allow the judge to assess whether they had committed any previous crimes. Although the practice has clearly outgrown its original purpose, it still takes place in courtrooms across the country and serves as a reminder of the history that has paved the way for the modern American judiciary.