September 17 marks the annual celebration known as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.
On the morning of June 18, 2014, in the Rotunda of the National Archives Building First Lady Michelle Obama congratulated a room full of 35 new American citizens and their families. Her speech marked the culmination of a process that individuals have taken part in since the founding of this nation—becoming naturalized citizens of the United States of America.
Naturalization is the process by which a non-citizen acquires citizenship. Over the course of U.S. history, the process of naturalization has been subject to differing degrees of pomp and circumstance.
In 1940, Congress passed a resolution authorizing the President to issue an annual proclamation designating the third Sunday in May as “I Am An American Day.” Many towns and cities celebrated the new holiday with special ceremonies recognizing newly naturalized citizens.
In 1952, Congress re-named the holiday and moved it to September 17, but its purpose remained the same. Now called “Citizenship Day,” it commemorated the signing of the Constitution on September 17, 1787, and recognized “all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”
The 1952 law also urged proper observance of the day and “for the complete instruction of citizens in their responsibilities and opportunities as citizens of the United States and of the State and locality in which they reside.” As of 2004, observance of the day, now formally called “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day” also includes educational programs and materials for Federal employees and public educational facilities.
Both “I Am An American Day” and “Citizenship Day” made special naturalization ceremonies central to the celebration of American Citizenship. In doing so they contributed to a larger post–World War II effort to elevate the process of becoming an American from a routine court procedure to dignified ceremony that recognized and celebrated the significance of citizenship.
Since the 1970s, the National Archives has commemorated Citizenship Day with naturalization ceremonies in its Rotunda. The first documented naturalization ceremony occurred on September 14, 1978, when 30 individuals were sworn in as U.S. citizens in front of the Charters of Freedom.
A particularly exciting naturalization ceremony occurred in the Rotunda of the National Archives on September 17, 1987, a day that not only marked the occasion for 30 individuals to become Americans but was also the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution.
The naturalization ceremony culminated five days of spectacular celebration that included a run by 200 Army personnel who carried a copy of the Constitution from the steps of the National Archives to Fort Monroe in Virginia and an 87-hour vigil in the Rotunda in which all four pages of the Constitution were on display (at that time only the first and last pages were on permanent display).
The National Archives has continued to hold naturalization ceremonies, and they have become favorite events for many Archivists, including the current Archivist of the United States, David S. Ferriero.
Featured speakers and noted guests have included celebrities, sports icons, current and past Presidents, the Archivist of the United States, and most recently our First Lady.
The National Archives has also held naturalization ceremonies in December to commemorate the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
Becoming a United States citizen is an momentous event. Taking the Oath of Allegiance in front of the documents that created this nation only amplifies its significance. First Lady Michelle Obama summed up this feeling in her recent remarks at the ceremony at the National Archives:
It’s amazing that just a few feet from here where I’m standing are the signatures of the 56 Founders who put their names on a Declaration that changed the course of history. And like the 50 of you, none of them were born American—they became American.