Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Morning at Monticello

As noted earlier, I had plans to attend the annual naturalization ceremony at Monticello this morning, which I did.

The ceremony, part of the Independence Day Exercises at the home of the author of the Declaration of Independence, featured artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude as speakers. (The tradition, though not always followed, is for immigrants to address the soon-to-be citizens. In this case, Christo came from Bulgaria and Jeanne-Claude from France before becoming naturalized Americans.)

As it happens, Jeanne-Claude did most of the talking, although both she and Christo stood at the podium. She began by saying she wanted to keep her remarks short, given the heat of the day. (It was, to be sure, hot and muggy under the sun on the mountaintop.) She noted the oddity that her husband and she shared the same birthday, though they were born in different countries and, she assured us, different mothers.

Jeanne-Claude also revealed that after Christo and she arrived in New York in 1964, they lived for three years as "illegal aliens." "Yes, they do exist," she said.

In pointing out many of the wonderful aspects of life in the United States, Jeanne-Claude said that sometimes you hear people say, "the government will pay for it." But, she retorted, "the government doesn't have money. It's our money. It all comes from the taxpayers." She cautioned her listeners to pay attention to where their money goes when the government spends it.

After the featured address, the United States District Court for the Western District of Virginia for Naturalization Ceremonies was called into session, with Judge James P. Jones presiding. The names of the candidates for citizenship were called out, they strolled up to the stage, and, once assembled, Judge Jones asked them to repeat the oath of citizenship:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

In his own, brief remarks, Judge Jones evoked the memory of Judge James H. Michael, who presided over this ceremony for many years and who relished that role; as the Charlottesville Daily Progress noted in its report on his death last August:
One of Michael’s favorite duties, according to his family, was administering the oath of citizenship at Monticello each July Fourth.

“If I try to put my finger on Harry Michael, nothing better illustrates his philosophy or his notion of America than those annual nationalization ceremonies at Monticello,” said University of Virginia School of Law professor A.E. Dick Howard. “I found those talks very moving. There he was talking to newly minted American citizens about what brings us together, our common ground. I thought that . . . statement of Americanism to new citizens couldn’t be improved upon.”
Judge Jones then introduced Fourth Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, who lives in Charlotttesville, who told the new citizens: "You refresh us and renew us and we just can't do without you."

"The great thing about America," Judge Wilkinson said, is that "it doesn't matter when your ancestors came. . . . You and I step forward as Americans and fellow citizens." Regardless of when our ancestors came or where they came from, "we're thinking about the future right now. We want an America where there is opportunity and not artificial obstacles."

Judge Wilkinson asked the newly naturalized to "think of how much you did to get here -- how many interviews you did, how many forms you filled out" and then noted that "today is a two-way street. It's not about us telling you, it's about you telling us what America means." He then joined Judge Jones in inviting the new citizens to come to the microphone to say a few words. Several did, almost all expressing pride in being U.S. citizens, with one woman saying she would "die for this country" and others going out of their way to give thanks for all the good things America does around the world. A few just barely choked back tears.

When the remarks ended, Judge Jones asked World War II veteran Earl V. Thacker, Jr., to lead the large crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The ceremonies ended with the Charlottesville Municipal Band playing the "Star-Spangled Banner," under the baton of James W. Simmons, who is retiring this year after 60 years with the band.

As the crowd dispersed, many of the new citizens took the opportunity to register to vote at a table staffed by the Albemarle County office of voter registration. It turns out that the entire Charlottesville Electoral Board was also present, along with some of our City election officials. Fortunately, we evaded a breach of the state open meetings law because there was no time when all three of us were together and we did not discuss official business. (I didn't see any of the County Electoral Board members, though they might have been mingling with the throngs of new citizens and well-wishers.)

For anyone who is a citizen of the United States by birth rather than effort, attending a ceremony like this can be quite instructive. I recommend it as something to do at least once, if not annually.

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