This last Memorial Day was punctuated by a brief civics lesson before dinner with friends and family. I posed the question: How is Memorial Day different from Veterans Day?
The children quickly suggested it had something to do with honoring our military. I then gave the example of a family member giving their life for the country and, then, another example of some still living and asked about the difference. After a few more responses, they settled on the fact that Memorial Day is to remember those who gave their lives for their country, whereas Veterans Day is to honor all those who have served in the armed forces still living.
As we sat around the table, I noticed my wife’s Native American sister who is married to a South African of Indian, Dutch, and African descent. I also noticed my daughter-in-law who is of American and Costa Rican descent. What brought them all together?
Certainly, the bonds of family are a primary answer. But as I reflected more, another critical reason sprang to mind. They are bound by America — their country, their citizenship, and everything that means! Core to the title “American citizen” is belonging to a community. I would also suggest that implied in the designation citizen, whether it’s of a family, city, or country, bestows rights and responsibilities upon the individual. The word can be defined in this way: “The native of a city, or an inhabitant who enjoys the freedom and privileges of the city in which he resides; the freeman of a city, as distinguished from a foreigner, or one not entitled to its franchises. In the United States, a person, native or naturalized, who has the privilege of exercising the elective franchise, or the qualifications which enable him to vote for rulers, and to purchase and hold real estate. If the citizens of the United States should not be free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own.” (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828) And closely related is citizenship: “The state of being vested with the rights and privileges of a citizen.” (Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language 1828)
Did you notice some of the privileges of being part of the “franchises,” among them owning property, commerce, safety, voting? Reciprocal to those rights are also responsibilities to vote (both a right and a responsibility), to serve others, to pay taxes, and to obey the laws governing such privileges. The word citizen is derived from the Latin civitatem, civitas or citatem suggesting a condition or rights, or membership in the community. We hear this sometimes in the context of the study of “civics” and how one is to morally interact in the public square.
A Young Man Learns a Lesson
I was introduced to the word citizenship in elementary school as it was a category separate from academics and a grade was given for moral behavior with self and toward others. As a young lad in the 3rd grade at Agnes Risley School I received firsthand experience with it. A few terms into the year I began to be rambunctious and obnoxious. My teacher Mrs. Arthur handed me my report card that term and told me, “Mr. Forman, you have a lot of thinking to do this time.”
I received a C- in place of previous “A” marks in “Citizenship.” It hurt me to have to take that card home to show my mother. She told me how disappointed she was with my mark and suggested I was a better boy than that. I then tried to divert the conversation to my academic grades which were almost all As. She would have none of it and told me that citizenship was the most important grade on the report card because it represented my moral actions and character. I never forgot that.
The Lesson Lives On
Shortly after establishing John Adams Academy, we established academic awards and, among them, an annual citizenship award by grade for the scholar who best modeled the 10 Core Values of the Academy which we called the “Forman Award.” This award culminates with the “John and Abigail Adams Award” which goes to the senior male and female graduates who have modeled the best citizenship of the 10 Core Values of the Academy as voted by their teachers, administrators, and peers throughout their tenure as scholars. The “John and Abigail Adams Award” is the highest award given by the Academy to recognize the complete scholar in character, servant leadership and academic merit. All of these awards live as reminders of the lesson my mother taught me that day.
The Lesson’s Application
What is so important about being a citizen of the United States of America? Why is it so desirable?
Because it is the only land founded on unalienable rights.
Citizens derive their unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness from “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and their Creator who is the author and promulgator. Since these rights come from God they cannot be appropriated by a political party, political leader, or ruler’s law or what we might call perversion of the “Golden Rule” that “he who has the gold makes the rules!”
Citizenship is perhaps best captured in the statement that the nation’s greatest resource are its people. The great experiment of America is the great melting pot of people coming together under the banner of liberty, virtue, and freedom. The only boundaries to such a society are moral actions by its citizens, or as we like to say at the Academy “Public and Private Virtue.”
“Citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it. What keeps a republic on its legs is good citizenship.”—Mark Twain as quoted in The Dying Citizen by Victor Davis Hanson
The Requirements of American Citizenship
I think it is helpful to review the requirements for citizenship even if we inherited it. This is our collective heritage. It is a legacy of our rights and responsibilities implied by birth or choice.
What are the requirements of full citizenship as an American? To become a U.S. citizen, you must:
- Be at least 18 years of age at the time you file the application;
- Have been a lawful permanent resident for the past three or five years (depending on which naturalization category you are applying under);
- Have continuous residence and physical presence in the United States;
- Be able to read, write, and speak basic English;
- Demonstrate good moral character;
- Demonstrate a knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government;
- Demonstrate a loyalty to the principles of the U.S. Constitution; and
- Be willing to take the Oath of Allegiance.
Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Character Will Always Be Central to Citizenship
As we require these things of ourselves and others, we create a great commonwealth of virtue and freedom. Character has always been central to citizenship now and in the future.
As John Winthrop foresaw in 1630, “For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.”