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CW Journal : Winter 2013 : Message from the President

President Colin G. Campbell

President Colin G. Campbell

Message from the President

Tests of Citizenship

Among the great privileges accorded a Colonial Williamsburg president is the opportunity to welcome to the ranks of citizens of the United States men and women who have chosen to become Americans. On Flag Day and again just before Christmas, they gather where Washington and Jefferson, Henry and Wythe, Randolph and others assembled to fashion the idea of America from the principles of liberty and freedom, justice and humanity, and they pledge their allegiance to the greatest representative democracy in the world. Last summer there were 100. Last month there were twenty-nine. No matter their numbers, it always is an occasion as moving for me as it must be for our new countrymen.

In December, immigrants representing eighteen countries—from Albania to Vietnam, from the United Kingdom to Argentina—rose in the Hall of the House of Burgesses in Williamsburg’s reconstructed eighteenth-century Capitol to take the final step toward citizenship on a road that began so many miles in the past. They each took an oath to “absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty” of which they once had been subject, and promised to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic” and to “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.”

Their oaths are informed by study as well as by belief and by commitment. Every naturalized citizen must learn the basics of our nation’s history and governance, and pass a test on that knowledge. How many natural-born citizens are as conversant in such matters as these by-choice Americans is a question that should concern us. Twenty-eight percent of the people who answered ten or more of the 100 sample naturalization test questions on Colonial Williamsburg’s website would not identify the author of the Declaration of Independence. Twenty-six percent did not know the president signs laws. And those are people drawn to a history-oriented Internet venue. Think about how those not attracted to such sites might score.

The success of the American experiment requires a citizenry cognizant of its history. The times require a restating of American values and emphasis on the importance of the past, so that all people, not just those who are becoming citizens, understand fully what our country is about. The pledges, the oath takings, the commitments to the country at naturalization ceremonies such as ours, remind me not only how valuable citizenship is but why institutions such as Colonial Williamsburg should nurture and advance it.

Essential to understanding the role of citizens in our republic is an understanding of how that republic came to be, how it has developed, and the promise of its future. Colonial Williamsburg’s mission is to be a center of history and citizenship education, to encourage national and international audiences to learn from what has gone before, and to promote the study, interpretation, and teaching of America’s founding democratic principles.

The ideas that are at the heart of the swearing-in of new Americans are the ideals Colonial Williamsburg has long articulated. Those ideals are why this city became a place where the future may learn from the past.

Colin G. Campbell
President and CEO