Back to the land where our fathers died

January 6, 2019

In 1985, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, I had the honor of speaking at a naturalization ceremony in Washington, D.C. (I was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a Reagan appointee.) Recently, I found a copy of that talk. It was a good Republican talk, and I offer it below.

But I do so in sadness. I fear it highlights by contrast both how low Mr. Lincoln’s party has sunk and how far too many of our fellow citizens have traveled from the idea and meaning of America. I can only hope that, someday, my fellow Republicans will learn to defend ideas like this once again.

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These remarks were delivered when I was acting chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities on March 12, 1985.

There’s a patriotic hymn that American schoolchildren sometime sing that may strike you, if you hear it or sing it, as strange. It contains the lines, “land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountain side, let freedom ring.”

Now, we all know, your fathers did not die in this land. They may have lived and died in Europe, or in Asia, or in Africa or Latin America, but they were not from here. It is because they lived and died elsewhere that you are, today, a part of this ceremony.

But, in a perfectly real sense, the song is true; you do have fathers who once did live and die here. In 1776 a small group of Americans risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to say before the world that all men were created equal — whether they were English or Jew, German or Slav — and because of that, that all men were endowed with certain inalienable rights.

This country began as an idea — the idea, as Abraham Lincoln said, that through our free institutions all of us might have equal chance in the race of life, with all its aspirations. This idea, he told us, was our birthright.

They gave us a promise that through our efforts the weights could be lifted from the shoulders of men and that all could have an equal chance. You are the proof that they meant it.

So, in a real way, the song is not wrong at all — your fathers did die here. Over 200 years ago, these Americans — immigrants and children of immigrants themselves – chose us to be their children long before we could choose them. They gave this idea not only to themselves or only for their generation. It was a vision for all the world, and for all future time.

In showing us the meaning of America, they not only chose us but they allowed us to share in their inheritance — in this life of equal liberty. They not did not exclude us — Italians and Poles and Vietnamese — but they singularly included us: All men are created equal, endowed with certain inalienable rights.

While other countries might be tied together by bonds of history or blood or tribe or race or kinship, we are tied together by an idea, a principle brought forth for us over 200 years ago. It is because of those men that we dare to call each other fellow citizens.

You are now full members of a nation that, when at its best, holds to no rank and knows no privileges. There is no one before whom you must take off your hat, no one behind whom you must walk, no one who has prior claims on your property or your dignity.

We are all, each and every one of us, proud of our national ancestors and attached to the land from which we came. But my grandparents came here, as you yourselves did, because America means to be, and is, a land of opportunity for yourselves and your children. It is truly a place where the burdens of other land have been lifted and where your children and your children’s children will prosper.

As the inheritance of America is given to you, you now have it in your power to pass it on to others. In this small way, you are not only the adopted children of the Fathers of America, you are now their equals, too.

One last note. From this day forward, no one should ask you to make an account of yourself. But if they do ask you what country you belong to, you’re perfectly right to tell them that you have now come into your inheritance, because this is the land where your fathers died.

John Agresto is a recently retired county judge in Santa Fe and author of Rediscovering America.

He is also former president of St. John’s College.

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