From John Hennessy:

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Photo courtesy Jackie Suazo

Last weekend, I had the true honor of giving the keynote address at a naturalization ceremony at Chatham. I had never been to a naturalization ceremony before. Thirty-six people became citizens, and probably 150 came to watch.

I have been involved in thousands of  public programs in my career, but this ranked in the top five, easily.  Witnessing something that truly matters is always a powerful thing, and this mattered–to the people receiving their citizenship, and, truly, to the people looking on as well. The day included none of the strained, polite applause that characterizes graduations or award ceremonies. Instead, there was unadulterated joy–from the participants and those watching.

The invitation to speak prompted some thinking about the nexus between history, citizenship, and our ongoing pursuit of a better nation. Here is what I had to say.

From the first days of our nation, Americans have challenged America to be better.  It’s a noisy process, sometimes raucous, sometimes even ungraceful.  But the result is unmistakable: from its beginning, our nation has traveled an arc of change that has led us away from oppression and toward equality and justice. We have meandered to be sure, and sometimes we have taken steps backward.  But the general arc of change is undeniable:  by the efforts of every generation we have progressed, become a better nation–more just, more tolerant. 

Citizenship is an invitation to join in that process of change—to join the chorus of Americans challenging America to be better.  We challenge ourselves in a million ways, by acts and words.   A gesture on a street corner challenges others to be as kind. Putting our children on the school bus each morning challenges us to be as conscientious. We challenge America to improve by voting or volunteering or raking your neighbor’s leaves, by teaching tolerance and confronting intolerance. 

Joining this process of national improvement is perhaps the greatest of all the privileges of being an American citizen. 

As we sit here today, I ask you to think for a moment about the path to citizenship. 

153 years ago, had we been sitting on these heights, looking over this river in the midst of civil war, we would likely have seen something curious on the river: rafts, hastily made, barely water-worthy, bearing families with all their possessions, pushing themselves across the river from Fredericksburg to this shore.  These were former slaves, run away from bondage. 

They came here seeking precisely what you have achieved today. By their coming—months before the emancipation proclamation—they were doing what Americans have always done:  they challenged America, as if to say:  “We have left bondage to be free—what will you do with us now?”  In the spring and summer of 1862, as many as 10,000 former slaves crossed the Rappahannock River to freedom, some of them likely walking these terraces in freedom, looking down upon the river as others followed their path. 

These men and women and babies and toddlers and boys and girls did not see their acts as momentous for anyone but themselves, but today we can see that their acts were momentous in many ways. By challenging America to accept THEIR determination that they would no longer suffer bondage, they pushed the nation along that arc toward justice, away from oppression.

Seven months later, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.  And three years after that Congress sent to the states the 14th Amendment, according these former slaves the thing they aspired to most beyond freedom:  citizenship. 

These people did not just walk the path to citizenship, they blazed a trail where none had existed. They, like you, were determined, courageous souls. I hope you will find inspiration from them, just as we derive inspiration from you. 

We congratulate you. We join you in celebrating life as Americans.  And, we welcome you to the noisy business of being a citizen. 

And now, mindful that the virtues of our nation come from its people, we bid you—our nation’s newest citizen:  to go challenge America to be better still….

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