This was written for ShareAmerica by Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Richard Stengel of the U.S. Department of State. Follow @Stengel on Twitter.
On October 11, I had the privilege of speaking at the naturalization ceremony for 125 new citizens, held at the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, a short walk from the Capitol.
The ceremony was presided over by the honorable Judge Tanya Chutkan, herself a naturalized citizen originally from Jamaica. It drew a remarkable group, its members from some 51 countries: from Kazakhstan to Kenya, from Argentina to Australia, from Iraq to Italy.
These men and women speak dozens of different languages and have different faiths and different heritages. Each of their stories is singular and extraordinary. But their collective story is what makes America singular and extraordinary. I told them that there aren’t degrees of American-ness — that on that day, they were Americans, 100 percent, full stop. And that their story is the American story.
In my remarks, I set out to explain what that means to me — and the responsibilities that come with citizenship. Here’s an excerpt:
My family didn’t come here on the Mayflower. Neither of my grandfathers was born in this country. Neither of them spoke English when they arrived by boat as young boys. Neither of them graduated from high school. But both of them started small businesses — as immigrants still are more likely than native-born Americans to do. My father, a kid from Brooklyn, fought in World War II with young men from all over America who were the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.
That is why for me, this ceremony — more than the swearing in of members of Congress, or of the Supreme Court or of the president of the United States — is the true ceremony of what it means to be American.
Unlike other nations, we are not a people formed by a common heritage, a common blood, a common religion. We’re united by an uncommon set of ideas: that all people are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
That is what binds us together. That is what makes us Americans.
As wonderful as today is, your American story is just beginning. As Justice Brandeis said, by taking that oath you now occupy the highest office in the land, that of citizen.
Democracy is the state that requires more of you than any other; it is the one with the most responsibility. In an autocracy or a dictatorship, you don’t have to make choices, all the choices are made for you. Here, you determine your own destiny.
And that is where responsibility comes in. When Benjamin Franklin walked out of that hall in Philadelphia 229 years ago after the Constitution was signed, a woman asked him what had been created. A republic, madam, he said, if you can keep it.
If you can keep it. The way you keep it is to participate, to take responsibility, to be guided by those sacred ideas. To volunteer, to stay informed. What Franklin and the other founders worried about is that people would be deceived by demagogues and fooled by liars, that they would be susceptible to rulers who abused their power, that they would lose touch with those core American ideas.
Here, as the Founders said, the people rule. That is the textbook definition of democracy. The first three words of the Constitution are “We the People.” Not we the government. Or we the elite. Or we the billionaires. It is We the People. It is by the power of we the people that the government has rights. The government does not give us rights, we the people give the government rights. That is part of what makes us exceptional.
Sometimes politicians and leaders divide America into us and them — and forget that all of us were once them.
We have a history of pulling up the ladder behind us. Irish need not apply. Jews unwelcome. Japanese internment camps. The Chinese Exclusion Act. The vilification of Mexicans. And, of course, there is America’s original sin of slavery — Africans who were involuntary immigrants. Our history has not always been pretty, but one thing you can always count on is that we hang a lantern on our problems — we have many flaws, but we shine a light on them and try to perfect this union, together.
When I was growing up, the symbol of immigration was the melting pot. People wanted to assimilate. Lose their accents. Cook American food. Wear blue jeans and T-shirts. After all, our national motto is ‘E pluribus unum’ — Out of many, one.
But today, I think, the model is more of a patchwork quilt, where you don’t have to let go of your traditions or heritage, but incorporate them into your citizenship. Everyone is a mixture of old and new.
Immigrants and refugees enrich and enlarge America. They renew and refresh the American experience. That is our DNA as a country. We can never forget that.
That is why the newest Americans are the truest Americans.