The following is a transcript of his keynote address as written:
Good morning my soon-to-be fellow Americans!
Let me begin by thanking the board of Thomas Jefferson Foundation and President Leslie Greene Bowman for giving me the opportunity to speak to you today. Thanks as well to Judge Thomas for your contribution to this great day.
It is truly an honor to be here.
Thanks as well to members of our armed forces and their families for their service to our nation.
And I want to especially thank the nearly 80 new American citizens for sharing this great celebration with me.
Today, you will take the oath of citizenship and become a member of the greatest country in the world.
We are the nation where individual liberty finally claimed a firm foothold.
And our bold spirit has grown stronger and brighter, illuminating the hopes and dreams of freedom lovers in every corner of our world, from the beaches of Normandy to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It is fitting that each year we gather here at Monticello to celebrate with men, women and children who have come from around the globe to become citizens of the United States of America.
A visitor to Monticello once observed that Jefferson “placed his mind, like his house, on a lofty height, whence he might contemplate the whole universe.”
Jefferson was a gracious host to visitors from around the world, who arrived for dinner, a glass of wine or two, and many hours of conversation.
Monticello was not only a guesthouse for the world, but a permanent home for hundreds of works of art and books that shaped this unique man.
If Monticello was a reflection of the man, his library provided a glimpse into a mind that was both super-human and contradictory.
Jefferson bought books at considerable expense, sending crates of them back from Paris, London and Amsterdam to Monticello, as well as to his friends Benjamin Franklin and James Madison.
While in Paris, he even managed to secure the writings of the French philosopher Voltaire, who was banned for religious blasphemy and political sedition.
No need to ask why Jefferson was willing to risk a tangle with French censors to get his hands on that book.
The influence of French freedom lovers is woven deep into Jefferson’s words in the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and, of course, the Declaration of Independence.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Voltaire made the same point with his usual pizzazz. He wrote:
“God is not on the side of the big battalions, but of the best shots.”
America is, in fact, a nation of best shots.
It is our birthright.
That was literally true, as demonstrated by Virginian Daniel Morgan and his sharpshooters, who were so feared by the British during the Revolution.
But I am speaking in a broader sense.
We are a nation of superlatives.
The smartest, the most courageous, the fiercest risk-takers.
The earliest settlers didn’t risk their lives to come to the New World hoping that happiness would then rain down on them from heaven.
They came here to pursue happiness.
To hunt it down and seize the endless opportunities that eventually stretched from ocean to ocean.
It’s no coincidence that the frontier was opened up by Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase.
He was of course the quintessential sharpshooter in every imaginable subject that attracted his interest.
He was Governor of Virginia and President of the United States.
He was also an architect, astronomer, philosopher, jurist, wine expert, agricultural researcher, scientist, inventor, educator and linguist.
As I walk across Capitol Square in Richmond, it’s amazing to think that Jefferson, George Washington, James Madison, Patrick Henry and so many other larger-than-life Virginians were all contemporaries.
It’s a little comforting to know that they didn’t always get along, but they managed to work things out.
Today, it sometimes seems like our country is in danger of losing its edge.
Too often we end up in a circular firing squad rather than working together to solve the challenges we face as a nation.
But we’ve been there before, and we’ve always managed to steady our aim and move forward again.
The reason is that we continue to receive fresh battalions of sharpshooters.
You are the newest battalion to arrive.
You are overachievers from around the globe, and you came here because you wanted to live in an entire nation of overachievers.
Jefferson himself was the son of an immigrant, but even he could not have fully realized how important future immigrants would be to keeping the American dream in focus.
More than any other place on the globe, the United States would not exist were it not for the contributions, large and small, of immigrants who came to these shores and made their own unique mark on our way of life