Friday, July 04, 2008

Remembrances of Independence Days Past - Part I

Today (July 4, 2008) will see President George W. Bush speaking at Monticello's Independence Day celebration. He is the fourth sitting president to do so, following Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Harry S Truman in 1947, and Gerald R. Ford in the Bicentennial Year of 1976.

Eight years ago, the principal speaker at the ceremony was, like Monticello's builder and first owner, a U.S. Secretary of State. At the swearing in of some six dozen new American citizens, Dr. Madeleine Albright spoke about her own experience as an immigrant to the United States and of the contributions foreign-born Americans have made to our culture and our communities.

I covered the event that year for the Metro Herald in Alexandria. It was my first time visiting Monticello on the Fourth of July and certainly not my last. (Last year I used the new citizen-journalist tool, YouTube, to post video of the event.)

This article appeared in the Metro Herald on July 7, 2000:

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Charlottesville Bureau Chief

Atop the “little mountain” he called by its Italian name, Monticello, Thomas Jefferson reflected on life and liberty, wrote thousands of letters, and received many visitors from Virginia and elsewhere.

As the epitaph on his gravestone, Mr. Jefferson chose to be remembered for only three things: that he was the father of the University of Virginia, the author of Virginia’s statute on religious liberty, and the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, just after noon in the bedroom that was the center of his life in the home he built at Monticello.

Every year since 1963, the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation – which owns and runs Monticello as a monument to the third president – has sponsored a ceremony on the anniversary of American independence and Mr. Jefferson’s death at which immigrants to the United States take the oath of citizenship, forsaking their foreign allegiances to become true Americans.

On July 4, 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was the keynote speaker at a ceremony on the West Lawn of Monticello. Nearly 80 adults from 27 foreign countries took the oath of citizenship, and nine children adopted into American families were given certificates of citizenship.

Secretary Albright, herself an immigrant (from Czechoslovakia) and a naturalized American citizen, welcomed her new compatriots in a brief but impassioned speech.

Speaking of her own arrival in New York Harbor at the age of 11, a refugee from Communist tyranny after previously fleeing Nazi occupation, Albright remembered her doubts and worries. But, she said, “I should not have been worried. At its best, America’s embrace is as vast as this continent is broad. We [her family] were welcomed, given refuge, and provided the chance to make new friends and build new lives in freedom.”

Addressing the concerns of those who fear the aliens among us, Albright reminded us that America is richer for its immigrants. Today, she said, “we see the contributions of immigrants everywhere in the vitality of our neighborhoods, the health of our economy, the strength of our democracy, and the enduring miracle of our unity.”

Gently scolding those xenophobes who would have prevented her and such eminences as Albert Einstein, Mother Frances Cabrini, and Andrew Grove from coming to America and helping to make it great, Albright noted: “There are some who resent all this and think that the day after they entered is the day the door to America should have swung shut. Let us pray that day never comes. For our nation needs the continued refreshment of new sources of energy and strength.”

It would have been impolite to fail to make note of the day’s host, Mr. Jefferson. So Secretary Albright paid tribute to him by saying that “the mind that conceived Monticello’s original design also helped to conceive an approach to government that had never truly been tried before. It was based on a conception of the individual not as a mere subject to the throne, but as a citizen with responsibilities and rights, and tracing all the powers of government back to the will and consent of the people.”

Those principles, Albright added, “fueled a revolution and launched America on its journey from wilderness to greatness – with important milestones of slavery’s abolition and the full enfranchisement of women and minorities along the way.”

Not content to make a speech and then return to her duties in Washington, Secretary Albright stood alongside the new Americans as they were sworn in by Samuel G. Wilson, the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia. She took the oath of citizenship with them and then greeted each one of them individually, shaking their hands and presenting them with the certificates proving their new nationality.

Also speaking at the ceremony were former Virginia Supreme Court Justice John Charles Thomas, who read the stirring opening section of Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness…”), and James H. Michael, Jr., the senior U.S. District Judge, who tried to explain, in a few words, how the day’s ceremony was not the end of a journey for the new citizens, but a beginning. Opening remarks were provided by Daniel P. Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, and the Foundation’s chairman, Benton S. Halsey. The ceremony closed with the Pledge of Allegiance led by local Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and the assembly sang the National Anthem, accompanied by the Charlottesville Municipal Band.

All photos by Rick Sincere.
(Special thanks to the Metro Herald's Greg Roscoe for digging up this piece from the newspaper's dusty archives.)

No comments: