Almost every year since I arrived in Charlottesville in 1981, my wife Nancy and I have attended the annual July 4th naturalization ceremony at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Each year, people born in countries from across the planet take the oath of U.S. citizenship, not only pledging to protect and defend our Constitution, but also renouncing “all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty…”
Over the years, we have heard numerous speeches discussing Thomas Jefferson and his role in the founding of the country, and celebrated countless people from foreign shores who decided to take the oath of citizenship and become American citizens. It is among the most inspiring events that an American can attend, largely because it links the power of Jefferson’s words with the promise of so many seeking a better life.
The naturalization ceremony at Monticello has been occurring since 1963, and for the last 30 consecutive years, former Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice John Charles Thomas has delivered a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence to the assembled crowd. There is a certain poignant irony to Thomas’s reading; after all, Jefferson’s words at the time did not apply to African Americans like Thomas, most of whom were enslaved. The Declaration also did not apply to women, people who did not own property, and Native Americans. Hearing Jefferson’s words, penned 243 years ago at the young age of 33, reminds us how idealistic a country we have been since our beginning. But locating them in historical context also underscores that while we have traveled a substantial distance, we still have a long way to go in order to become a “more perfect union.”
The character of the naturalization ceremony has changed dramatically over the years, as Monticello has become increasingly sensitized to the role of slavery in the creation of our nation, and to the relationship between Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemings. Nonetheless, the ideals expressed in the Declaration transcend an American history that was cruel and oppressive at critical times, and they never cease to inspire people without power to seek redress of grievances to create a better system where ever-larger numbers of people can enjoy their “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Pursuit of Happiness
Americans look to the Declaration as a way to measure our success as a nation, as a standard to which we can all aspire. And it is for this reason that the phrase “the pursuit of happiness” should have special meaning for both citizens and their elected representatives. For Jefferson, as Gary Willis aptly describes in his book, Reinventing America, the Pursuit of Happiness meant something beyond simply pursuing one’s own self-interest, whether it was social, economic or political. In Jefferson’s view, and in keeping with the philosophers whose life works formed the basis of his education, the pursuit of happiness was only to be found in the exercise of a person’s civic virtue, using his or her abilities to help shape the positive experiences of other citizens. In other words, the pursuit of happiness was not only an individual right but a collective aspiration with civic virtue and citizen participation at its core. Virtue was a major concept in Jefferson’s view, and citizens exercised it for themselves and by helping others. It was this “virtue” that would help us succeed as a democratic nation.
This analysis is very different than what we sometimes find in contemporary political discourse, where arguments are heard that citizens, in their pursuit of their individual self interest, help us all. This is the concept of the free marketplace as the basis of freedom; we realize ourselves through pursuing self interest in the economic realm, and that pursuit improves the prospect of individual and collective happiness. Jefferson’s words go much farther. Pursuing “happiness” implies there is a commonality to the political experience and that we should try to find ways of working together to make the society operate more effectively for everyone who lives within it. The common good and the civic virtue of helping others was key to the “pursuit of happiness.”
A Call to Action
Of course, the Declaration is about much more than “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” it is a call to action:
“…Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes;…But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government….”
To throw off the oppressors, said Jefferson, was more than just a right; it was a duty, again a reference to civic virtue and its responsibilities.
The naturalization ceremony, though, is about much more than just Jefferson and the Declaration. For the hundreds of people from around the globe who have taken the oath on the portico of Jefferson’s Monticello, their stories are the stories of America. My great grandfather came from Southern Italy in the early 1900s, arriving at Ellis Island with no ability to speak English and hardly a trade. He made his way to Upstate New York where he settled with my great grandmother and made a home for them and their children. They worked hard and participated in civic life. They made my future successes possible.
We are at a critical juncture in our country’s history. There are Americans who would seek to create walls not just on the borders but within communities, between neighbors. There are many reasons for this, some more understandable than others. And this is not the first time when our country has experienced this tendency. But if history is any guide, Americans have traditionally fought to tear down barriers that prevent others from realizing their dreams. Our resistance to walls is part of a uniquely American struggle for justice, and there are many successes to show for it, whether in the form of the Civil Rights Movement, the crusade for women’s equality, the efforts to ensure rights for the LGBTQ community, or the push to better incorporate immigrants into our social, economic, and political lives. It is a struggle in which every person has a crucial role to play, for as Justice Thurgood Marshall said in a July 4 speech in 1992, “The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls, but it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.”
Melting Pot or Mosaic?
We frequently hear America described as a melting pot, but another analogy offered by Loew’s Corporation board chair Andrew Tisch at the Monticello naturalization in 2018 might be more fitting. He described America as a mosaic, consisting of people of different cultures bound together by the cement of our founding documents and democratic institutions. Mosaics are created from brightly colored individual stones, each of which has their own character and their own beauty. In assembling the mosaic, you need an adhesive, a cement by which you can bind the individual stones together. Those stones never lose their individual character, but they are joined together by many small bonds that bridge any gaps between them to make something even more beautiful. In a melting pot, the individual ingredients lose their identity with time to become part of the common stew. In America, however, we want those brightly colored individual stones to shine as they are joined together in the common mosaic called the United States. Without the cement of the Constitution, the founding documents of our country, including the Declaration, and our social, economic, and political institutions, there is very little that can keep the stones together.
So while many in this country want to continue to build walls both at the border and within communities, Jefferson’s words encourage us to instead help create the new American Mosaic of the 21st Century, complete with the various talents and skills and hopes and dreams of all Americans, including new Americans who seek a new life for themselves and their families. One of the challenges for elected officials today is to determine how best to do that, and to expand the table of civic life to include more people of diverse backgrounds to strengthen the country and expand the American dream.
Excerpted From The Forthcoming Book,
“In The Room At The Time:
25 Years Of Politics, Policy, And Personalities”
David J. Toscano- 2019
All Rights Reserved.