Remarks of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the New-York Historical Society, April 10, 2018
to our Democracy newsletter
My fellow Americans, it is my great privilege to welcome you to citizenship in the democracy that is the U.S.A. Today you join more than 20 million current citizens who were 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 — people who have traveled long distances, overcome 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 these immigrants sits on the highest court in the land and will proudly administer the oath of citizenship to you.
You have studied our system of government and you know of its twin pillars. First, our government has limited power. 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 and pride. They are set forth in the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the Constitution. They are inalienable, yielding to no government decree. And 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 of America 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 was very much in need of 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 start, people held in human bondage, Native Americans, and women — 50 percent of the population — came to be embraced as full citizens.
A French observer of early America, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote, "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, 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 citizens just like you, of every race and creed, making ever more vibrant our national creed: E Pluribus Unum (out of many, one). We have made huge progress but the work of perfection is scarcely done. Many stains remain. In this rich land nearly a quarter of our children live in deep poverty, nearly half of our citizens do not vote. And we still struggle to achieve greater understanding of each other across racial, religious, and socio-economic lines. Yet we strive to realize the ideal to make a more perfect union. As new, well-informed citizens, you will play a vital part in that endeavor by first and foremost voting in elections, serving on juries, and engaging in civic discourse. We sing of America sweet land of liberty. Newcomers to our shore, 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 the word Liberty. He explained in 1944 what liberty meant to him when he greeted a large assemblage of new Americans gathered in 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. What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.
May the spirit of liberty, as Judge Hand explained, be your beacon. May you have the conscience and the courage to act in accord with that ideal as you play your part in helping to achieve a more perfect union.