July 4, 2000
Thank you Michael, so very much, for that introduction and thank you so very much for what you have done to make American history come alive to so many Americans, and to have us understand our Presidents and the complexities of American history. You have done a remarkable job and I am so very honored to have been introduced by you. I actually would have liked that conversation with Thomas Jefferson; I’m not sure he could’ve visualized a secretary with a skirt, however.
President Jordan, Chairman Halsey, Judge Thomas, members of the court, and all the trustees and members of the Thomas Jefferson Historical Foundation, thank you for inviting me to share in this very special celebration.
I am pleased that we are joined here by Judge Wilson and by more than four score prospective American citizens, your families and friends, and by so many other visitors and guests. I join with all of you in celebrating the 224th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.
As we are gathered here, on this historic property, amidst the bunting and the flags, I’m reminded of a day more than fifty years ago, when I first arrived in the United States, accompanied by my mother, sister and brother. My family cherished liberty, but Czechoslovakia–our native land–had been betrayed by leaders whose power stemmed not from the votes of the people, but from the Communists in the Kremlin. We no longer had a home, but because of my father’s job at the United Nations, we had the chance to come here to America. So like countless others before and since, we steamed into New York Harbor and beheld the Statue of Liberty–our eyes full of tears, our hearts full of hope. I was 11 and I do remember being very excited, but also a little scared. Because I did not know whether I would be accepted in this new land. I did not know whether the differences in the way I spoke and acted would leave me IN America, but not really a part of it. I did not know whether, after leaving my old home, I could truly find another. I should not have worried. At its best, America’s embrace is as vast as this continent is broad. We were welcomed, given refuge and provided the chance to make new friends and build new lives in freedom. For this priceless opportunity and all that has since come with it, I will forever be grateful. And of course, it never, ever occurred to me that I would be Secretary of State and would have Thomas Jefferson’s job.
That, in a nutshell, is my story. But every immigrant and every refugee has a story.
You, the new citizens we will welcome today are of different races, ages, genders and faiths. You come from countries as large as India and as small as Sierra Leone; from as far away as China, and as near as Canada and Mexico. You have traveled diverse paths from the lands of your birth to the lawns of Monticello.
And you are known by names that vary in sound from Li Xu and Darius Tolczyk to Mahmoud Kashani and Carlos Ignacio Valdez. The miracle is that, before this ceremony is over, each of your names will belong to an American.
And so this morning, we welcome you with warmth and expectation. For today marks a new beginning in your lives. And an opportunity for you to add your own chapters to the saga of America which is, above all else, a land of immigrants.
Decade after decade, the United States has been enriched by the steady flow of mind and muscle, culture and creativity that America’s promise has attracted to our shores. And today, 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.
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.
As new citizens, you accept a solemn duty to participate in our democracy. This matters, because whether America thrives or fades, prospers or fails, leads or falls behind, depends entirely upon the vitality and responsibility of our citizens. This is true not only at home, but also in our relations overseas.
For the world is far smaller now than in Jefferson’s day. And after two global wars, the Holocaust and multiple genocides in the last century, we have learned that problems abroad, if left unattended, will all too often come home to America.
If our country is to be secure and prosperous in the new century, we must be more than consumers of liberty, we must be the champions and vindicators of it. We must join with others who believe in what Thomas Jefferson called the “sacred fire of freedom,” and ensure that the democratic tide remains a rising tide around the world.
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.
These basic principles 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. They also ignited a torch of liberty that has inspired hundreds of millions overseas in their own struggles for liberty, and allowed us to enter the new century as part of a world more free than it has ever been.
It is said there is nothing that time does not conquer. But the principles we celebrate on the Fourth of July here at Monticello have neither withered nor worn. Through Depression and war, controversy and conflict, they have continued to unite and uplift us and to define our nation and its purpose to the world.
From the era of Thomas Jefferson to the time of William Jefferson Clinton, the story of the United States is the story of a unique and free society emerging from isolation to assume a leading role on the world stage. It is the story of a nation first learning, then accepting, and then acting on its responsibilities.
Above all, it is the story of people who came here from countries around the world, and who stayed and answered the call of this extraordinary land, and who have given their lives and labor in service to its cause.
In a few minutes, the United States will welcome new citizens who will add to its diversity and strength. That is a fitting present to our nation on her birthday. And ample grounds for celebration for us all.
Thank you very much for letting me be a part of this, and for having the opportunity to represent the greatest country in the world.