|Dear Readers: Larry J. Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, will be the keynote speaker for the 54th annual Independence Day Celebration and Naturalization ceremony at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson and a must-visit American treasure. This ceremony is the oldest continuous naturalization ceremony that takes place outside of a courtroom. As 76 people from 40 countries prepare to take the oath of citizenship, Prof. Sabato’s remarks will focus on the value and importance of citizen participation for the health of American democracy. The text of his speech is below. If you would like to watch the ceremony live this morning, it will be livestreamed here beginning at 9 a.m. EDT. We wish you and your family a safe and happy Independence Day.
— The Editors
Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for that kind introduction. I’m grateful to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Chairman Donald King, and President Leslie Greene Bowman for inviting me to speak to you today.
If I may be permitted a point of personal privilege: Over the last decade my UVA Center for Politics has hosted delegations of students from more than 40 nations around the world including Afghanistan, Argentina, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Costa Rica, and coming soon, the Middle East and North Africa. They come to Charlottesville to learn about democracy, American-style. Joining us today are 30 students from Belarus — please stand and be welcomed at this special place and time.
And now to the main event. I know it’s hot, and I think you’ll be pleased that years ago I learned the most important law of speechmaking — KISS: Keep it short, stupid. I will.
What an honor it is to address all of you, but especially our soon-to-be newest citizens. Any place is a good place to become an American, but no place is better than Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of the Declaration of Independence. That startling decree was the Big Bang that brought our nation into existence and the event that we celebrate today — along with marking Jefferson’s death in this house on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration, precisely 190 years ago.
Jefferson’s story is almost universally known, his brilliance and passion for liberty celebrated around the world. Yes, his vision of liberty was regrettably restricted to one race and one gender. He was imperfect, as we all are, and a man limited by his times. Yet his virtues and accomplishments far outweigh his vices and failures. His life of extraordinary achievement and vision inspires, and commands respect and gratitude. I’m especially appreciative that he founded the University of Virginia; I love my job and I wouldn’t have it had Jefferson not persisted against great odds to create UVA! (Wahoowa.)
And if the University, the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Lewis and Clark Expedition aren’t enough to induce your thankfulness, then maybe you’ve forgotten that Mr. Jefferson helped to introduce ice cream and macaroni & cheese to the United States. That makes me hungry — I hope we have some for lunch.
This moment isn’t a celebration of Jefferson as much as it is a tribute to you and your potential. The extraordinary thing about America is that each citizen is given the tools and the opportunity to make a difference and to leave a legacy that will continue once our brief moment on earth has passed.
There are as many ways to produce a legacy as there are people on the grounds of Monticello today. Since I’m the speaker, naturally I’m going to recommend my favorite: Politics. (You knew this was coming, surely.)
I realize politics has a terrible reputation. Mention the word, and dark visions of corruption, bribery, and smoke-filled rooms are conjured up. I’ll grant you, the current presidential campaign certainly hasn’t helped the reputation of politics. How I would love to offer you some pointed commentary on that subject and our current candidates, but decorum on this day of unity prevents me. (Maybe at our picnic.)
Here’s a revolutionary thought for your Fourth: Politics in America is a good and necessary thing.
It’s the oil that greases the creaky machinery of government by encouraging responsiveness to public opinion.
It’s the glue that binds together a nation of continental expanse and stunning diversity — unquestionably, the United States is the most diverse Republic on the face of the planet, as you here today prove, with concentrations on our shores of people from every other country around the globe.
Without liberal application of politics, the centrifugal forces and the discord generated by diversity might rip apart the fabric of our society.
Without skillful use of the political arts, how could we hope to make our system work when power is divided in so many ways, vertically with layers of national, state, and local governments, and horizontally with the separated powers of Congress, President, and Supreme Court?
Politics is simply the means we use to make our nation work, and to make our states and communities better places to live.
Your power as an individual citizen is awesome. You can shake things up by speaking up, starting a petition, organizing your neighbors, backing a candidate for office, or running yourself!
And voting, of course — always, always voting. The choices may not be ideal from time to time, as the 2016 election demonstrates, but part of a citizen’s duty is to pick the best from a mixed lot. Good luck this November.
And get ready to vote frequently — and I don’t mean for contestants on American Idol or voting people off the island. You’re going to be called on to vote for serious reasons several times each and every year. Primaries and general elections and special elections galore. Just be glad you’re in Virginia. We have a relatively short ballot. In California they elect so many offices and decide so many issues that voting is a part-time job!
By the way, if you want to quickly maximize your influence, just organize all your family and friends to vote. My late father was a first-generation Italian-American and a distinguished veteran of World War II. After the war he became something of an evangelist for democracy. Not only did he never miss an election, he carted many members of our extended family to the polls — happily providing those who weren’t fully informed with a list of preferred candidates. The lesson is, you too can become a political boss with your own machine!
Your local registrars for the City of Charlottesville and the County of Albemarle are right here with us. Talk about customer service. Before you leave these beautiful environs, be certain to register to vote.
Truth is, citizenship is hard work. You have to do your homework because mistakes can prove costly. You see our good friends across the pond, who made a decision on the European Union that millions are trying to take back, too late to save the value of the pound or maybe even the integrity of the United Kingdom. Judging by the large number of Brits googling “what is the European Union?” after they voted, it looks likely some electors didn’t know what they were doing, with enormous consequences.
The internet does make any voter’s task easier, though it’s critical to seek out the facts before casting a ballot. You also have to separate good from bad information. Here’s a tip. Ignore the shrill voices. You can safely skip any website or delete any tweet that is written in ALL CAPS.
Let me conclude where I began, when I cited Thomas Jefferson’s amazing story. You have a remarkable story, too, and you’re beginning what we hope will be the best chapters of all, the ones penned as a U.S. citizen.
Help us to live up to American ideals. Make us better. With your international backgrounds, encourage your fellow citizens to build bridges, not walls. Join us in civic enterprises that will benefit everyone. Your contributions may not make you famous, but fame is overrated. The Kardashians are famous, and no one knows why!
We’re counting on you. We know you’ll come through, just as generations of new citizens have for the entire existence of America — America the Beautiful, now and forever, your country.
Congratulations to our new citizens and Happy Fourth, everyone!