Henningsen: Welcome To America

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(HOST) There are many ways to celebrate the Fourth of July. Teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen points out one that’s often overlooked.

(HENNINGSEN) I usually usher in the 4th at midnight on the 3rd, joining neighbors on Thetford Hill to ring the church bell once for every year of American independence. But last year circumstances put me in a different place for an unexpectedly moving way of commemorating our nation’s birthday.

I was a visiting scholar at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, and early on that bright Virginia morning I joined almost a thousand people climbing to that hilltop house to witness a naturalization ceremony.

That’s the moment when citizens of other nations, to quote from the oath of citizenship, "absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty" and swear to "support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic."

Some of my companions were family members and friends of the soon-to-become citizens, but most were just ordinary folks from Albemarle County who chose to get up early and honor their country by welcoming its newest members. Their dress mirrored the diversity of the moment: from long sun dresses, pin-striped suits, bow ties, and straw boaters, to tank tops and cargo shorts, to saris and head scarves – all mingling happily on Jefferson’s lawn.

Seventy-one people stood to take the oath. Under the windows of Jefferson’s bedroom and study, they faced west, as Jefferson had oriented his house – placing the old world behind him, looking forward to the promise of the new. We rose before them in welcome.

They came from thirty-three countries, only ten of which existed in Jefferson’s time. No doubt he would have been pleased to see several natives of the United Kingdom there, but what would he have made of people from Nepal, Bolivia, Ghana, or Uzbekistan? Perhaps it’s proof of his dying prediction that the American Revolution was but a step in the inevitable triumph of human freedom everywhere. He would delight to know that more than half the world’s nations have declarations of independence modeled on the one he wrote.

Perhaps he would have been even more pleased to hear the testimony of those taking citizenship. Many expressed gratitude to the family, friends, and faith that sustained them on their long road. But a surprising number spoke movingly of the privilege of becoming part of a nation that stands for freedom. "I want the chance to be a participant in the American system," said one, "not just an observer." Over and over again our newest citizens reminded the rest of us not to take our citizenship for granted.

At a time when so many focus on what’s wrong with our nation, it’s refreshing – even inspiring – to welcome so many others who believe passionately in what’s right about America.

All over the country people choose this day to swear a solemn oath abandoning their past and becoming part of our future.

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