Americans at Heart: Honoring our Honorary Citizens

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Speaking at a ceremony conferring honorable citizenship upon Winston Churchill, President John F. Kennedy praised the former British prime minister for his “zest for freedom” in the face of grave danger. “Whenever and wherever tyranny threatened,” said Kennedy, “he has always championed liberty.”

Indeed, this heroic support of political freedom and liberty is an extraordinary virtue shared by seven of the eight individuals who have been granted the exceptionally rare honor of honorary American citizenship (the eighth is Mother Theresa, whose compassion and selflessness are beyond reproach). Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg gave his life to rescue tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazis. William Penn and his wife Hannah founded the Quaker colony of Pennsylvania on the principles of religious freedom and tolerance. The Marquis de Lafayette famously served as a general in the American Revolution and helped author the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

The two most recent heroes to be granted honorary citizenship have been largely overlooked by history despite their equally magnanimous love of freedom and liberty. When considering the heroes of the American Revolution, a few names pop up in our heads. George Washington: military genius and the father of our nation; Benjamin Franklin: the “First American” and influential political theorist; Thomas Jefferson: the author of the Declaration of Independence, and the list goes on and on. While it is easy to limit our thoughts to simply the “American” leaders of the Revolution, many more people who were involved in our fight against the tyranny of the British deserve recognition. Perhaps it is a result of their foreign birth. Or perhaps it is because they never held high civilian office in the United States, unlike other Revolutionary leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton. Either way, no one seems to recall the vital contributions of Casimir Pulaski and Bernardo de Gálvez, two of our honorary citizens. We should take to heart these men and their values, especially when appreciating what it means to be living in America today.

Many European noblemen volunteered for the patriot cause merely due to their resentment of Great Britain, but Pulaski and de Gálvez had different motivations — wholesome enthusiasm for freedom. Upon his arrival in the Colonies, Pulaski, a Polish military officer, told General Washington that he “came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Countless other journal records and letters revealed his commitment to the American cause.

Casimir Pulaski was born in Warsaw in 1745, the son of a Polish Count.  In 1760, Pulaski’s family joined the fight against Russia’s increased involvement in Polish politics. Soon after, Pulaski was exiled to France as a result of his promotion of Polish liberty. Benjamin Franklin, in France at the time, recognized this love of liberty within Pulaski and spoke of his ability to join the fight for American freedom. Franklin described Pulaski, who was intrigued with the colonies’ struggle, as “an officer renowned throughout Europe for the courage and bravery he displayed in defense of his country’s freedom.”

Because Pulaski fought in “defense of the liberties of his country against the three great invading powers of Russia, Austria and Prussia,” Franklin implored him to join the American cause. Pulaski, unhappy with his exile in France, decided to take Franklin up on his offer. He traveled to the rebelling colonies in 1777, and was placed in charge of the Continental Army’s first cavalry unit. A skilled horseman, Pulaski’s claim to fame amongst Americans came when he saved the Continental Army at the Battle of Brandywine in the same year. Soon, he was deemed the “father of American cavalry.” Throughout the war, Pulaski demanded much of his men, as well as himself, in the struggle for freedom. On numerous occasions, he even drained his own bank account to replenish his cavalry unit’s equipment and resources.

In 1779, Pulaski succumbed to wounds he received in the Battle of Savannah. After he fell during a cavalry charge, the British were impressed with his courage and let the Americans carry him away from the battlefield. In 1929, Congress declared October 11 – the anniversary of his death – as Pulaski Day. However, he was not declared an honorary citizen until 2009. The simple declaration of a national holiday in his name makes it clear that he deserved the citizenship given to him.

Even more recently, Spaniard Bernardo de Gálvez was awarded honorary citizenship. Born in 1746 in Spain, de Gálvez was also part of a distinguished military family. Throughout his successful Spanish military career, de Gálvez was sent on various expeditions against Portugal as well as against the Apache Indians in New Spain. After his return to Spain in 1772, he was reassigned to the province of Louisiana and became governor in 1777.

Even before the start of the American Revolutionary War, de Gálvez aided the American patriots in their endeavors against the British government, frequently corresponding with men such as Patrick Henry and James Madison. His correspondence with the Virginia delegates in particular exhibits the respect others held for him, as they, despite their disdain for entrenched formal aristocracies, frequently addressed him as “Your Excellency.”

The Spaniards certainly had personal interests in the American Revolution, as their Mexican and Louisiana territory was compromised by the British. Spain and Great Britain historically had many qualms with one another, dating back hundreds of years before, so they quickly allied themselves with the colonists. Originally in America to protect the interests of the Spanish, de Gálvez ultimately worked alongside the colonists in battles such as Baton Rouge and Fort Charlotte.

However, de Gálvez’s most important victory was in 1781, when he was able to secure Pensacola, the capital of West Florida that had been seized by the British. Wounded in the battle, he pushed on, taking over Mobile and Pensacola and leaving the British with no bases on the Gulf Coast.

In May of 1782, the Spanish naval fleet withstood a heavy blow in a fight against Sir George Brydges Rodney’s British forces over Jamaica. That same year, his forces captured the British naval base in the Bahamas. Securing the Bahamas for Spain, de Gálvez assured the Spaniards and the colonists a strategic, allied island in the Caribbean. Additionally, during his governorship, de Gálvez’s alliance with the Americans was crucial for the delivery of supplies along the Mississippi River. It was through his control of New Orleans that the Americans were able to quickly disseminate military intelligence and much-needed supplies throughout the southern colonies, the bastion of British and loyalist power.

Not only did de Gálvez support the Continental Army through permitting their use of the Mississippi, but de Gálvez was also committed to the ideal of racial equality. Although the American armed forces would not be fully integrated until nearly two centuries later, de Gálvez possessed a unique desire for equality that inspired those around him. He headed one of the most diverse military forces at the time: a force of Europeans, American Indians, continental Americans, Mexicans, and freed slaves, all with wide ranges of experience. Such methods encouraged the colonists to begin allowing similar diversity in their own ranks.

Congress declared de Gálvez as a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.” Without de Gálvez, the British would have been able to encircle the Continental Army from the south. The crucial port at New Orleans helped us win the unwinnable. Even after the war, de Gálvez continued his commitment to the American cause of freedom by helping draft the peace treaty that ended the conflict.

Honorary citizenship is an incredibly rare award, which testifies to the exceptional work they did to receive it. Both de Gálvez and Pulaski changed the course of history through their sacrifice towards the American cause. Neither Pulaski nor de Gálvez were born in the colonies, yet each understood the desire for freedom. Their contributions to the fight for liberty and security must be recognized.

We must be grateful for those who shaped America and its ideals before we even had time to shape them for ourselves. Honorary citizenship is an extraordinary accolade only given to the most deserving individuals. I urge my fellow Princetonians and Americans to remember more than just American citizens who have died fighting for our country and more recent heroes like Winston Churchill and Mother Theresa. We must consider and acknowledge those who have helped us with our cause for freedom, liberty, and honor. Both Pulaski and de Gálvez serve as reminders of the struggle for freedom, and the least we can do is to posthumously accept them as one of our own.

Natalie Fahlberg is a sophomore from McLean, Virginia, tentatively majoring in the Woodrow Wilson School. She can be reached at fahlberg@princeton.edu

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