On December 18, 2018, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg welcomed new U.S. citizens at a naturalization ceremony at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.
My fellow Americans, it is my great privilege to welcome you to citizenship in the democracy that is the USA. You number 31 and came here from 26 countries, alphabetically, from China to Venezuela. Today, you join more than 20 million current citizens, born in other lands, who chose, as you have, to make the United States of America their home. We are a nation made strong by people like you who traveled long distances, overcame great obstacles, and made tremendous sacrifices—all to provide a better life for themselves and their families.
My own father arrived in this land at age 13, with no fortune and speaking no English. My mother was born four months after her parents, with several children in tow, came by ship to Ellis Island. My father and grandparents reached, as you do, for the American dream. As testament to our nation’s promise, the daughter and granddaughter of immigrants sits on the highest Court in the land. In America, land of opportunity, that prospect is within the realm of the achievable. What is the difference between a bookkeeper in New York City’s garment district and a Supreme Court Justice? One generation, my life bears witness, the difference between opportunities available to my mother and those afforded me.
You have studied our system of government and know of its twin pillars. First, our government has limited powers; it can exercise only the authority expressly given to it by the Constitution. And second, citizens of this country enjoy certain fundamental rights. Those rights are our nation’s hallmark. They are set forth in the Bill of Rights, and other provisions of, or amendments to, the Constitution. They are inalienable, yielding to no governmental decree. Our Constitution opens with the words: “We the People of the United States.” By limiting government, specifying rights, and empowering the people, the founders of the United States proclaimed that the heart of America would be its citizens, not its rulers.
After the words “We the People of the United States,” the Constitution sets out the aspiration “to form a more perfect Union.” At the start, it is true, the union very much needed perfection. The original Constitution permitted slavery and severely limited who counted among “We the People.” When the nation was new, only white, property-owning men had the right to vote, the most basic right of citizenship. But over the course of our history, people left out at the beginning—people held in human bondage, Native Americans, and half the population, women, came to be embraced as full citizens. A French observer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote that “[t]he greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than… other nation[s], but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Through amendments to our Constitution, and court decisions applying those amendments, we abolished slavery, prohibited racial discrimination, and made men and women people of equal citizenship stature. In the vanguard of those perfections were people just like you—new Americans of every race and creed, making ever more vibrant our national motto: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.
Though we have made huge progress, the work of perfection is scarcely done. Many stains remain. In this rich land, nearly a quarter of our children live in poverty, nearly half of our citizens do not vote, and we still struggle to achieve greater understanding and appreciation of each other across racial, religious, and socioeconomic lines. Yet we strive to realize the ideal—to become a more perfect union. As well informed new citizens, you will play a vital part in that endeavor by, first and foremost, voting in elections, also serving on juries, and engaging in civic discourse.
We sing of America, “sweet land of liberty.” Newcomers to our shores, people like you, came here, from the earliest days of our nation to today, “[seeking] liberty—freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be [you and me].” I would like to convey to you, finally, how a great American jurist—Judge Learned Hand—understood liberty. He explained in 1944 what liberty meant to him when he greeted a large assemblage of new Americans gathered in New York City’s Central Park to swear allegiance to the United States. These are Judge Hand’s words: Just what is this sacred liberty that “must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes.”
I cannot define [the spirit of liberty]; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interest alongside its own without bias.
May the spirit of liberty, as Judge Hand explained it, be your beacon. May you have the conscience and courage to act in accord with that high ideal as you play your part in helping to achieve a more perfect Union.
Excerpt from Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue: A Life’s Work Fighting for a More Perfect Union, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda Tyler. Copyright Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Amanda Tyler and the University of California Press.