The Corner

U.S.

‘Uniquely a Community of Values’ (and Other Fighting Words)

President Gerald R. Ford at a naturalization ceremony at Monticello, July 5, 1976 (National Archives)

On the homepage today, I have a piece on being an American — a few points on that subject, a few stories. I wanted to add a thing or two here.

I brought up Aunt Eller — who sings, “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!” If you would like to see that portion of Oklahoma! — or be reminded of it — go here.

Also, I would like to quote from President Ford, but first, here is a little patch of my piece today:

At naturalization ceremonies, the presiding officer — could be a judge, even a Supreme Court justice; sometimes it’s the president of the United States — often says, “You are now just as American as descendants of the Mayflower Pilgrims.” (Sometimes they are more so, in outlook and appreciation; sometimes they aren’t.)

Surfing around, I stumbled onto a speech that President Ford made on July 5, 1976, the day after our Bicentennial. He was at Monticello, presiding over a naturalization ceremony. So much of what he said relates to our (roiling) debates today.

You will want to read the whole thing, I think, but let me excerpt a few paragraphs — beginning with:

Immigrants came from almost everywhere, singly and in waves. . . . Like the Mayflower Pilgrims and the early Spanish settlers, these new Americans brought with them precious relics of the worlds they left behind — a song, a story, a dance, a tool, a seed, a recipe, the name of a place, the rules of a game, a trick of the trade.

Such transfusions of traditions and cultures, as well as of blood, have made America unique among nations and Americans a new kind of people. There is little the world has that is not native to the United States today.

What do you think of that? And this?

The essential fact is that the United States — as a national policy and in the hearts of most Americans — has been willing to absorb anyone from anywhere. We were confident that simply by sharing our American adventure these newcomers would be loyal, law-abiding, productive citizens, and they were. Older nations in the 18th and 19th centuries granted their nationality to foreign born only as a special privilege, if at all. We offered citizenship to all, and we have been richly rewarded.

The United States was able to do this because we are uniquely a community of values, as distinct from a religious community, a racial community, a geographic community, or an ethnic community. This Nation was founded 200 years ago, not on ancient legends or conquests or physical likeness or language, but on a certain political value which Jefferson’s pen so eloquently expressed.

Them’s fightin’ words, certainly on the right today — as we debate nationalism, patriotism, America as idea, America as not-idea, and so on.

One more dose of Ford, please, on 7/5/76. He saw a “growing danger in this country.” And that danger was “conformity of thought and taste and behavior.” He continues,

We need more encouragement and protection for individuality. The wealth we have of culture — ethnic, religious, and racial traditions — is a valuable counterbalance to the overpowering sameness and subordination of totalitarian societies. The sense of belonging to any group that stands for something decent and noble, so long as it does not confine free spirits or cultivate hostility to others, is part of the pride every American should have in the heritage of the past. That heritage is rooted now, not in England alone — as indebted as we are for the Magna Carta and the common law — not in Europe alone, or in Africa alone, or Asia, or on the islands of the sea. The American adventure draws from the best of all of mankind’s long sojourn here on Earth and now reaches out into the solar system.

Dang. Go ahead, Jerry.

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