Not Perfect, But Perfectible

by Vartan Gregorian

America is not just a past; it is also a future. It is not just an actuality — it is always a potentiality.
Ellis Island Portraits Three Scottish boys, possibly brothers, photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca. 1905–14.

Each Fourth of July, since 2006, we have celebrated immigrants through our Great Immigrants initiative, honoring our founder, Andrew Carnegie. In 1848, at the age of 13, he came to America with his parents, following in the footsteps of so many who sought a better life on these shores. An extraordinary work ethic coupled with ambition, as well as a keen mind for details, led to his rapid advancement from a telegraph operator to a founder of Carnegie Steel. In 1901 he sold the company to J. P. Morgan for $480 million, becoming one of the wealthiest men in the world.

That would have been enough for most men, but Carnegie then had to confront the problem of how to use his fortune for the common good. Thanks to his parents, he had grown up with a strong sense of his obligations to others. He decided that he would invest his fortune in a new way, to help others climb up the same ladders that he had ascended. His philosophy of giving was articulated in The Gospel of Wealth (1889). It is wrong to die leaving behind millions of available wealth, Carnegie wrote. Of such as these the public verdict will be: “The man who dies thus rich dies disgraced.” The result was an astonishing philanthropy that built over 2,000 libraries, and more than 20 institutions and organizations, including Carnegie Hall, Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Carnegie Corporation of New York.

As Andrew Carnegie would have been the first to explain, what he did was not charity. Rather, it was an investment in the imagination, the intelligence, and the future of the American people. Naturally, he hoped that others would lift themselves up as he had done, and remember their own obligations to the common good. He understood that the daily miracle of the United States required citizens who not only talked but also listened to each other. Carnegie’s vision, along with that of John D. Rockefeller, sparked a philanthropic revolution in this country that continues to this day.

With our Great Immigrants initiative, we commemorate Andrew Carnegie’s remarkable legacy by paying tribute to the millions who have come to America — and who continue to arrive each year — from other countries.

That is why, with our Great Immigrants initiative, we commemorate Andrew Carnegie’s remarkable legacy by paying tribute to the millions who have come to America — and who continue to arrive each year — from other countries. So far, with this initiative, we have honored more than 500 exemplary immigrants to the United States. These men and women have excelled in science, education, government, agriculture, the arts, the humanities, the law, business, technology, and the armed forces. They are Nobel laureates, athletes, generals, philanthropists, and lawmakers. They come from diverse backgrounds and from more than 100 countries. But they are united by the fact that they are now all citizens of the United States.

Ellis Island Portraits Three Slovak women photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca. 1905–14.

Perhaps the inspiring example of immigrants to America — past and present — can help to unite us again as a nation. After all, Carnegie did not castigate immigrants as a “burden” to our country. They have come here to be a part of America, not apart from America. We do not have to go far back in our history to remember how these new Americans have transformed our society. For example, in 1939, a dark period for Europe, the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, opened its doors to displaced scholars and scientists from other countries, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, and many others. The simple independence given these brilliant minds to explore new horizons free from persecution sparked at least two scientific revolutions, one in quantum mechanics and the other in computing, which continue to shape our world. According to MIT estimates, more than 30,000 corporations as well as entirely new industries were born of these transformational advances.

Ellis Island Portraits Algerian man photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca. 1905–14.

For generations, America has offered refuge to those escaping from religious, ethnic, and political oppression. For example, the 17th century brought Quakers and Puritans, who were fleeing religious persecution in England. William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, believed that in this new world “there may be room … for such a holy experiment,” where people could worship according to their conscience. Like the Puritans, he hoped that this land of abundance would allow its citizens to build the “city on a hill” that Jesus envisions in the Sermon on the Mount.

The ideal of the “city on a hill” has been used (and abused) by orators ever since. My favorite is Ronald Reagan, who evoked it beautifully in his farewell address, adding the word “shining,” so that the city emanated light. As he said, “I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life.… And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors, and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Throughout our history, those doors have remained open. After the failure of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, throngs of young immigrants came to these shores and built new lives here. In the aftermath of World War I, waves of refugees once more abandoned the disorder of the Old World for the freedoms offered by the New. Then again, during the convulsions of the 1930s and 1940s, America became a beacon for those fleeing the tyrannies of fascism and Communism.

Becoming a citizen is a social, political, and psychological act. Citizenship is also a pact. Democracy withers when citizens become mere spectators. Citizenship offers not only opportunity, but obligations as well.

Today, immigrants remind us more than ever of what is right about America. By going to such lengths to become American, they honor those of us lucky enough to be born American. Many of them come to our country from societies that are either oppressive or simply lacking in opportunity. Yet each new arrival brings with him or her an element that enriches our culture. In their faith, their love of family, and their patriotism for their adopted land, these future Americans have done so much — and will do so much more — to unite us. As Herman Melville wrote in his novel Redburn, “We are not a narrow tribe of men.… No: our blood is as the flood of the Amazon, made up of a thousand noble currents all pouring into one. We are not a nation, so much as a world.”

At Carnegie Corporation of New York, we continue to stand by our founder, who believed strongly in both immigration and citizenship. Like him, we believe in citizenship as a pragmatic necessity as well as an ideal. Becoming a citizen is a social, political, and psychological act. Citizenship is also a pact. Democracy withers when citizens become mere spectators. Citizenship offers not only opportunity, but obligations as well. Andrew Carnegie understood that democracy depends on an educated citizenry, willing to make sacrifices for the common good.

I remember tearing up the day I swore that I would “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” and that I would “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” It felt as if I were getting married again, and once more vowing my devotion till death do us part.

As I pay tribute to Andrew Carnegie, I am not theorizing. I remember becoming an American citizen — almost 40 years ago. Such an anniversary provokes much reflection on what it actually means to be a citizen. I was lucky enough to be allowed to come to the shining city on a hill through one of the open doors described by President Reagan. I remember tearing up the day I swore that I would “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” and that I would “bear true faith and allegiance to the same.” It felt as if I were getting married again, and once more vowing my devotion till death do us part.

Ellis Island Portraits Lapland children, possibly from Sweden, photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca. 1905–14.

My naturalization ceremony took place, appropriately, in Philadelphia, the city where the great ideals of this country were written down for all the world to see. On that occasion I was invited to address what America meant to me. Since those remarks still resonate with me, I thought it appropriate to share some of them here.

We the newest citizens in the U.S., like so many of our immigrant ancestors, have come not only to enjoy the benefits of America but to work for its development and welfare. We have come to lend a hand in reaching out for democracy’s ideals. We have come to share its legacy and mission and to contribute to that “perfect union.” We have come to the U.S. in order to be independent, not dependent; in order to be citizens, not subjects. In order to be free.
We know America is not perfect, but we see it as perfectible. For us, America is not just a past; it is also a future. It is not just an actuality — it is always a potentiality. America’s greatness lies in the fact that all its citizens, both new and old, have an opportunity to work for that potentiality, for its unfinished agenda.

In retrospect, I am amazed at the generosity my adoptive country showed me. I was a foreign student with scant financial resources and limited abilities as an English speaker. I was the first person in my family to attend a university. Had someone told me that I would go on to become a professor, a provost, and a president, I would have considered that a fantasy conjured up by an addled mind. But astonishing things happen in our country — and they will continue to happen. America invested in me and saw me as a citizen. It is a debt that I can never fully repay, though I have tried.

Ellis Island Portraits Three women from Guadeloupe photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at the Ellis Island Immigration Station, ca. 1905–14.

I was born in Tabriz, one of the major cities of Iran. I came from a rich civilization with 2,500 years of history and culture. But as I traveled from an empire to a republic, I learned the power of the rule of law. Americans lived in a relatively young country, but they enjoyed the protection of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. “We the people” did not mean that one’s entire identity was given over to the state, and becoming an American did not mean sacrificing my culture and my identity. I was not set apart, I was included. It was astonishing to me that my ethnic background as an Armenian and my Iranian citizenship were not used against me. No one denounced the university when I was offered the chancellorship at UC Berkeley. Not only was I an alumnus of Berkeley’s biggest rival, Stanford, but at the time the country was in fact in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis. I was not even an American citizen yet, although I became one shortly thereafter. I was amazed by the fairness and generosity of Americans, and have striven to emulate those qualities in my own life. (In the end I decided to decline the chancellorship and remain in my position as provost at the University of Pennsylvania.)

So as we celebrate our Independence Day in 2018, let us salute all who have maintained the values for which our republic stands, and let each of us renew the tremendous responsibility of American citizenship. This July 4th, we should remember Ronald Reagan’s words. The shining city has not only walls, but doors.

I note with gladness that there is still a depth of generosity in this country unlike that of any other nation. It is this generosity that was highlighted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic study, Democracy in America (1835), which shrewdly dissected the new nation’s dynamism, resilience, and promise. The visiting French nobleman attributed the generosity of Americans to a widespread sense of obligation to repay their country for providing its citizens with the benefits of freedom. Citizens, Tocqueville wrote, seem to have “enlightened regard for themselves,” which spurs them to “willingly sacrifice a portion of their time and property to the welfare of the state.” At its best, Tocqueville believed that this “enlightened self-interest” would help American citizens distinguish between personal gain and public interest, and, ultimately, between justice and injustice.

So as we celebrate our Independence Day in 2018, let us salute all who have maintained the values for which our republic stands, and let each of us renew the tremendous responsibility of American citizenship. This July 4th, we should remember Ronald Reagan’s words. The shining city has not only walls, but doors. We should continue to welcome those who choose the United States as their home and are willing to take part in this “holy experiment.” We are a nation of nations.

Notorious RBG Was in the House! Candidates for U.S. citizenship were in for a delightful surprise when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — affectionately dubbed “Notorious RBG” by her legions of admirers — took her seat on stage at a naturalization ceremony at the New-York Historical Society on April 10, 2018. Justice Ginsburg delivered the Oath of Allegiance to the more than 200 candidates, hailing from 59 countries, who participated in the morning ceremony. “My fellow Americans,” she began, “it is my great privilege to welcome you to citizenship in the democracy that is the U.S.A.” It is true that at the start, Ginsburg said, the union was “very much in need of perfection.” But stressing America’s constant state of change, she quoted Alexis de Tocqueville: “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As a country, we must always be mindful of what Abraham Lincoln, our first Republican president, said about Fourth of July celebrations and immigrants during a speech he gave in Chicago, Illinois. On the evening of July 10, 1858, to “loud and long continued applause,” Lincoln spoke:

We hold this annual celebration to remind ourselves of all the good done in this process of time of how it was done and who did it, and how we are historically connected with it; and we go from these meetings in better humor with ourselves — we feel more attached the one to the other, and more firmly bound to the country we inhabit.…
We have besides these men — descended by blood from our ancestors — among us perhaps half our people who are not descendants at all of these men, they are men who have come from Europe … and settled here, finding themselves our equals in all things. If they look back through this history to trace their connection with those days by blood, they find they have none, they cannot carry themselves back into that glorious epoch and make themselves feel that they are part of us, but when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, and so they are.

Ellis Island Portraits are from the collections of The New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division, William Williams Papers.

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