December 2022/January 2023
‘To support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America’
Debra Steidel Wall
Acting Archivist of the United States
On December 15, the voices of nearly 40 people echoed in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, reciting the oath of allegiance as they became citizens of the United States. Voices like theirs have resounded through the Rotunda since September 17, 1977, when 29 individuals from 24 countries participated in the National Archives’ first naturalization ceremony.
Archivist of the United States James Rhoads called that ceremony "the most appropriate celebration yet held by the Archives on that symbolically important day" and later declared that he hoped naturalization ceremonies would become an annual tradition.
For these many years, we have been proud to host the ceremony with the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. In the last dozen years alone, in our locations around the country, we have welcomed more than 600 new citizens from over 100 countries. These ceremonies usually take place on September 17, which is Constitution Day, and December 15, which is Bill of Rights Day. Our largest naturalization ceremony was on September 17, 2012, when 225 new citizens were sworn in on the 225th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
In my own time at the Archives, I have witnessed several naturalization ceremonies, and they never fail to move me. The excitement and emotion in the room is palpable, made even more so by being in the presence of the founding documents of our nation—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.
Millions of visitors from across the United State and around the globe have passed through the Rotunda to view these documents, confirming the high regard in which they are held. But on naturalization days, these cornerstone documents of our government hold even more meaning for those coming to confirm their intention to become U.S. citizens.
Standing in front of the parchments inscribed more than two centuries ago, the new citizens can see the words that describe the rights and responsibilities of the branches of government and the rights of individuals. They can feel a connection between themselves and the country they have adopted as their own. In the presence of a United States District Court judge, they swear to support and defend the Constitution—and see the actual Constitution before them. Guest speakers welcome the new Americans and celebrate the rights and opportunities they can now fully enjoy—with the original Bill of Rights nearby.
As I told the 39 new Americans in December, “these rights are now your rights as new citizens.” And on a personal note, I shared how I wished my immigrant grandparents could see their granddaughter in that moment, standing in front of the founding documents, and welcoming new citizens—and that they could know how grateful I am for their courage and their sacrifices. After the December 15 ceremony, Ricardo, a newly sworn-in citizen, was asked, “How do you feel today?” He answered: “It feels like I belong.”
Beyond the walls of the Rotunda, the billions of records in the custody of the National Archives document the many, many ways people interact with the government and use the records to exercise and protect their rights. In addition, these new citizens will have a very personal connection to the Archives when the records documenting their journey to citizenship are preserved for future generations.
These ceremonies are a “welcome” to the community of Americans and an invitation to participate in civic life. Through them we publicly say this country is yours, these rights are yours, and these records are yours.