Speech to New Citizens (Bannock County Courthouse, November 2, 1998)
I hope that you will be willing to think with me for five or ten minutes about selections from three important documents in United States history, and their meanings for us -- as citizens of the United States -- on November 2, 1998. The first selection is from the Declaration of Independence: “that [people] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness....” When Thomas Jefferson wrote these words in 1776, in most of the nations of the world -- including Great Britain -- governments came first, and individual rights came second. In the United States, however, individual rights are first because they come with creation, and governments are second because they are formed to protect and defend people’s rights. What rights did our founders see as “unalienable”? Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Today, we understand the word pursuit to mean “to chase,” and we “chase” happiness a lot, as in, “I would be totally happy if I won the lottery.” It is important to realize that in 1776 the word “pursuit” DID NOT mean “to chase.” It meant “to acquire.” In other words, “pursuit of happiness” means that in the United States, you have the right to be happy. So, I hope you are all happy today, but if you are not, you need to ask, why am I not happy? If you are not happy because of government (national in Washington or local in your community), then you should change the government. If you are not happy because of yourself, then you should change yourself.
My second quotation is from the preamble of the Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” Unfortunately, today very many Americans blame government for their country’s problems -- the president, the Congress, the governor, the mayor, the city council, the sheriff, the county commissioner, the school board, and on, and on. In our country, very many people are so fed up with government today that they will exercise their right as Americans NOT to vote tomorrow. But if this country fails, future historians will know exactly where to place the blame for its failure -- on the people of the United States. In Abraham Lincoln’s words [in the Gettysburg Address in 1863], this is a country “of the people, by the people and for the people.”
In closing, it is fitting on this day to quote Abraham Lincoln’s words because no one knew any better than he what it meant to be an American, and no one suffered any more for his country than did Abraham Lincoln. At the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln tried to understand why the war had lasted as long as it had and why it had been so terribly destructive. What he concluded was that the people must have wanted it that way -- that they took pleasure in dividing the nation up and trying to kill each other. In fact, Southerners and Northerners had even used religion in order to feel good about killing each other. In his Second Inaugural Address, he said, “Both sides read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes....”
Today, we desperately need another Abraham Lincoln, but we also need citizens who will hold government to task; who will take responsibility for their actions instead of blaming their problems on others; and who will disagree with others without making God part of their anger.
You honor the United States of America today by choosing to become a citizen. I wish you well, and -- above all -- I hope that you will exercise your right as an American to be happy.