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Don't Dilute the Oath of Allegiance

John Fonte

Thank you, Chairman Hostettler. I am John Fonte, a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute and director of the Center for American Common Culture.  My testimony today has the endorsement of the Citizenship Roundtable, an alliance which the Hudson Institute and the American Legion formed in 1999 to strengthen citizenship, and to promote the patriotic assimilation of immigrants into the American way of life.  I would like to introduce into the record American Legion Resolution Number 169 that states that:


The American Legion opposes any and all changes to the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance, as used in naturalization ceremonies, that would dilute or eliminate any of the following important and necessary elements of the Oath:


(1)                 Support for the Constitution of the United States of America


(2)                 Renunciation of all allegiances to foreign states or sovereignties


(3)                 Support for and defense of the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies foreign and domestic


(4)                 Bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America and


(5)                 Bear arms on behalf of the United States, or perform work of national importance on behalf of the United States.


We commend Congressman Jim Ryun for introducing this legislation to reaffirm Americas commitment to the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance and to codify it into law. We also salute the officials at United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, particularly the Chief of the new Office of Citizenship, Alfonso Aguilar, who has been working hard on this crucial issue and has some excellent ideas on the subject of the Oath.


Why is this important? 


This issue is important because the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance is central to American Democracy. It is central to who we are as a people.  At the core of American self-government is the principle of We the People of the United States, the first words of our constitution expressing the principle of popular sovereignty.  In taking this Oath, the immigrant is voluntarily joining We the People, the sovereign American People. The newcomer is transferring sole political allegiance from his or her birth nation¾and from any other foreign sovereignty or political actor¾to the United States of America. For more than two centuries this transfer of allegiance has been a central feature of our nations great success in assimilating immigrants into what has been called the American way of life. We are not simply a nation of immigrants we are a nation of assimilated immigrants and their descendants.


The Oath is central to America because of the kind of country that we are. If we were (like many other nations) a regime based on race or ethnicity or religion, the Oath would not be crucial. However, unlike most other countries our nationhood is not built on race, ethnicity, or religion, but, instead, on political loyalty to American constitutional democracy. It is precisely because we are a nation of assimilated immigrants, whose citizens come from all parts of the world, that we must be serious about the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance.  


This Oath¾this transfer of allegiance¾is at the heart of citizenship naturalization. To retain allegiance to another constitution besides the American Constitution, and thus to continue to belong to another people besides the American people, is inconsistent with the moral and philosophical foundation of American constitutional democracy.


Clearly, a self-governing people, such as the American people, has the right to determine the rules of admission to citizenship, to its political community¾and there is no evidence that the American people favor dropping the principle of transferring allegiance from the old country to United States, that has been part of our law since the Presidency of George Washington.


History of the Oath of Allegiance


The history of the Oath could be roughly divided into two periods: the Founding Era of the 1790s and the Americanization period of the 20th century.


Founding Era. With immigration on the rise after American independence, the Congress passed a series of laws regulating the citizenship naturalization of newcomers. The Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795 required new citizens to take an oath of allegiance to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and to renounce all previous political allegiances. In addition, the new citizens were required to be of good moral character, attached to the principles of the Constitution and well disposed to the good order of the United States.  All of these requirements remain part of the law today.


The Founding Fathers favored what could be called the patriotic assimilation of immigrants into the mainstream of American life.  Thus, George Washington wrote to John Adams that he envisioned immigrants getting assimilated to our customs, measures, laws, and because of this, Washington believed, native-born citizens and immigrants would soon become one people.


In a 1790 speech to Congress on the naturalization of immigrants, James Madison stated that America should welcome immigrants who could assimilate, but exclude those who would not incorporate themselves into our society. Alexander Hamilton recommended gradually drawing newcomers into American life, to enable aliens to get rid of foreign and acquire American attachments; to learn the principles and imbibe the spirit of our government; and to admit of a philosophy at least, of their feeling a real interest in our affairs.


Americanization period. During the period of large-scale immigration at the beginning of the 20th century Americas political and civic leaders (including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Louis Brandeis, Jane Addams) supported a policy Americanization.


 In the spirit of Americanization Theodore Roosevelt declared that:  the immigrant who comes here in good faith [and] becomes an American and assimilates himself to us shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed or birthplace or origin. But that is predicated upon the mans becoming an American and nothing but an American


Roosevelts chief political rival, Woodrow Wilson, also supported Americanization. He told a mass naturalization ceremony in 1915:


I certainly would not be one even to suggest that a man cease to love the home of his birth and the nation of his originthese things are very sacred and ought not to be put out of our heartsbut it is one thing to love the place where you were born and it is another to dedicate yourself to the place to which you go. You cannot dedicate yourself to America unless you becomewith every purpose of your will thoroughly Americans


As part of this Americanization policy, citizenship naturalization requirements were standardized. In 1905 a Commission on Naturalization appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt recommended the following as a standard Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance  (for a hypothetical immigrant from Great Britain):


I John Smith, do solemnly swear that I support and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, and particularly my allegiance to King Edward VII of whom I was formerly a subject, and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.


In 1929 regulations for specific oath language were enacted that began with the renunciation of all allegiance to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty and followed with a promise to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  On the eve of World War II the phrase I will bear arms on behalf of the United States was added to the elements of the oath. The current oath based on the five elements, is as follows:


I hereby declare on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject of citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.


Conclusion: H.R. 3191 and the centrality of the five elements of the Oath


It is vitally important to have an Oath that is rhetorically unambiguous and inspiring, and substantively significant to the meaning of American citizenship.  The language should be solemn and majestic. It must not be pedestrian. Above all, it should both focus the mind and stir the heart.


Congressman Jim Ryun has stated that we need a forceful and uncompromising Oath of Allegiance. The Senate sponsor, Lamar Alexander, has declared that he likes the current Oath because It has strength. It has clarity. 


Congressman Ryun and Senator Alexander are certainly right that the current Oath possesses powerful, historic, and majestic language and phrases.  We know that others disagree and object to words like abjure and potentate that they call archaic and obscure.


Reasonable people can disagree about the utility of these two words,  but what is absolutely essential are three major points.   


First.  Congress should decide the Oath 


The Oath is a serious expression of American national identity (like, for example, the National Anthem) that should be decided by the elected representatives of the people. No single Administration should be able to change or alter the words of the Oath on their own volition. 


Second. The Five Elements of the Current Oath must be maintained.     


This means that either the current historic oath should be codified as is, or codified with some very minor stylistic changes (by, for example, dropping one or two words such as abjure and potentate.)  The five elements of the current oath (some of which has been in use since the 1790s), and the core language of the current oath should be the  default position. The five elements are the substantive heart of the Oath. It is imperative to retain these five elements and the traditional core phrases of the Oath that focus the mind and stir the soul, such as: I absolutely and entirely renounceall allegiance and fidelity to any foreign state or sovereignty; that I will defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States; that I will bear true faith and allegiance; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, so help me God.   


Third. Questions on the meaning of the Oath should be part of the civics/history test that applicants for citizenship take.


In todays post 9/11 and globalizing world of increasing transnational ties and continuous high immigration, it is more important than ever that we get citizenship naturalization right. It is vital that the meaning of the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance remain clear to all citizens, immigrant and native born alike. Our new fellow citizens should clearly understand the nature of the moral commitment that they are making to the American democratic republic.


Therefore, we think it is essential that questions on the meaning and significance of the Oath (and the five elements of the Oath) be incorporated into the history-government test that applicants for citizenship take. Upon beginning the naturalization process, candidates for citizenship should be given study guides that clearly explain the meaning of the Oath (and its five elements) and told that there will be questions about it on the test. At this point, what could be considered as more obscure terms could be explained with examples given.  For example, Osama Bin Laden meets one definition of potentate (one who dominates or leads any group or endeavor.)


It should be clearly explained to new citizens by the Department of Homeland Security, United States Citizenship and Immigration Service, that the Oath means that they have a moral obligation to give up all political allegiance, loyalty, and citizenship, from their birth nations and from non-state foreign powers, and that upon taking the Oath, their sole political allegiance is to the United States of America. 


Incorporating the principles and elements of the Oath in the citizenship test should not be difficult. They could be incorporated into a multiple choice test or other format.  Currently candidates for citizenship are asked questions such as: What is the Constitution? What are the duties of Congress? Name one benefit of becoming a citizen of the United States? The current test also includes less appropriate questions such as What INS (USCIS) form is used to apply to become a naturalized citizen? Certainly candidates for American citizenship could also be asked questions such as: What does the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance mean? What do new citizens promise to do when taking the Oath? What is one thing that new citizens promise to do when taking the Oath? 


Including serious questions on the meaning of the Oath of Renunciation and Allegiance in the citizenship test would help make the naturalization process what it should be. That is to say, it should be a rite of passage, much as a communion, confirmation, bar or bat mitzvah, graduation, or wedding ceremony. For as James Madison declared in Federalist 49 our democratic republic requires both enlightened reason and a certain degree of veneration in order to endure. 

From a serious orientation program at the beginning of the process when immigrants first apply for citizenship, to studying for and passing the history/government and language tests, to the final ceremony, the citizenship naturalization experience should be meaningful, dignified and inspiring. In short it should foster patriotism. For new Americans, the naturalization process should be a major life-altering experience.

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