My Turn: Simon Winchester on Becoming an American Citizen

Simon Winchester Photo illustration by Newsweek. Source photos: Tetra Images / Getty Images (statue), Joe Drivas / Iconica-Getty Images (fireworks)

My love affair with America began with a vast disappointment, back in 1959. My father had been offered a job as an engineer in Tulsa, Okla. My mother and I, overjoyed at the idea of exchanging our shabby little life in north London for the magic of the prairies—all high grass, sunshine, oil wells, and longhorn cattle—sold the house, packed up our belongings, booked ourselves on an ocean liner. And then, the night before sailing, my father got cold feet and canceled everything.

I was crushed—but vowed to go, one day, and see for myself the dream that had been so cruelly snatched away. Four years later I seized the opportunity. I took a year off before Oxford, bought the cheapest ticket to Montreal, traveled to Vancouver, and then crossed the American frontier by way of the Peace Arch into the seaside town of Blaine, Wash.

I then spent the magical days of that spring and summer hitchhiking through every corner of the country, from Los Angeles (dinner with Kirk Douglas, coffee with Johnny Carson), to New Iberia, La. (guests of the Tabasco sauce factory owners), from Sault Sainte Marie, Mich. (shaking President Kennedy’s hand) to Topeka, Kans. (horse riding with Harold Stassen), to Wheeling, W.Va. (where at 2 a.m. one frightening night a young man of lustful intent asked me if I wanted a b.j. to which I, quite innocent of such matters, spluttered thanks, but I already have one at home), to New York City, and myriad places in between.

All told, I hitched 38,000 American highway miles, and it cost me just $18. I had entered at Blaine with 200 crisp bills in my pocket; and when six months later I left for Canada by way of Houlton, Maine, I had 182 of them left. Such kindness I had never known.

The experience changed me, profoundly. That summer, somewhere inside me was germinated the vague idea that one day I might make common cause with these kindly, warm, open folk, and even eventually become (as I heard it was possible to do) one of them.

Ten years later I was back, this time as a young reporter, and assigned to cover one of the most extraordinary episodes ever to befall the country: the resignation of a president, over Watergate. For 30 months I watched transfixed as the ponderous machinery of America’s democracy cranked itself up to answer, it seemed, the ultimate wish of the public. To get rid of British heads of state had for centuries required execution, the head on the block. Here it seemed, and more properly, it was the people who enjoyed the greater measure of sovereignty. A people I now even more urgently wanted to join.

But there was more. I had come to Washington from Belfast, from reporting on three horror-filled years of hatred and killing. Stripped of its subtleties, the violence there stemmed from a mutual hatred between Ulster Protestants and Irish Catholics—so long as they were confined to Ulster. But then many Belfast friends moved away, to escape. I soon came to reconnect with some who had moved to America–couples who had loathed one another back in the Six Counties, but who now, in Chicago, Seattle, and Dallas, far from hating one another, had married, had produced children, had quite forgotten the need to hate. And still others, people who had arrived here mired in the hostilities of other homelands—immigrants from the Balkans, the Levant, and Indochina were among those I came to know best—soon found their ancient animosities were fading into insignificance, too. Their experience only reinforced my feeling: the argument for my joining this extraordinary experiment in improving the human condition—an imperfect experiment at times, of course—grew steadily more powerful.

The tug of home at first proved fierce, difficult to resist. It exerted an ever more powerful pull the longer I stayed away. I went off to live in India, then spent a dozen years in Hong Kong—and perhaps because I was convinced that imperial Britain, which when I lived in these outposts was still held in high esteem, had done good by its faraway subjects, I used to feel no small sense of pride in being an Englishman. Except that once Hong Kong passed back into the hands of China, in the summer of 1997, I came back—and not to London as was expected of me, but by choice, to New York.

As I settled into the rhythms of that unmatchable city, so, bit by bit, my jingoistic leanings started to fade, and I began to consider what truly mattered to me, about the society in which I wanted to live out the rest of my days. I used to stroll at lunchtime down to the waterfront, at the Battery, and list those attributes of Home I felt I could abandon. Though at first I felt a traitor, a heretic, I realized I would feel no qualms at all about turning my back on the notions of royalty, on the bizarre idea of an established church, on inherited privilege, on the House of Lords, on class divisions, and on the relative want of opportunity.

It was this last that pushed me over the edge. By now I was prospering, and in a way and to a degree that I felt I could never have done back home. I felt so deeply grateful to America in consequence, beholden. I now truly wanted to throw in my lot, to play in full my part in America’s making and its future.

Yet I couldn’t: I wasn’t allowed to vote. Except—what was the rallying cry, born in Massachusetts, all those years ago: no taxation without representation? Well, I said to myself: I pay taxes. I demand to vote. I must vote. I must share in the right to help throw the rascals out, or keep the good ones in. And so in due course—coincident with President Obama’s election, which set the capstone on it all—I sent in my application, setting in motion the formal procedure leading to the ceremony in which I will take part this Independence Day.

There was a single moment when I wavered. At my final examination the federal officer saw in my files that the queen had given me an award: Officer of the Order of the British Empire. It had been a hugely proud day. My 90-year-old mother came to Buckingham Palace. I had shaken Her Majesty’s hand. She had pinned a medal on my lapel. The British ambassador had told me I had brought “honor and glory to my country.”

The officer’s question ended this reverie. “Would you be willing,” he demanded, sternly, “to give up this award, offered as it was by a foreign prince or potentate?” For a second, I wondered. Emotionally, I was English, and always would be. The palace had been a great moment in my life. But then: what I was now embarking upon was all part of some even-greater good—a greater, well-considered good.

So I looked the officer straight in the eye, gulped, and replied that yes, I would be willing to give it up. He smiled faintly. Then I guess you’ve passed, he said.

The ceremony will be held in Boston at teatime on July 4, aboard the USS Constitution, the majestic three-masted sailing frigate that is the oldest commissioned floating warship in the world. The fact that she played so heroic a role in the War of 1812 against the British invests her with a symbolism that, for me at least, is both powerful and ironic: for I will walk on to her foredeck as a Briton, swear a powerful oath before her commander, and walk back down the gangplank as a newly minted American.

Ah, yes, said a friend, congratulating me, but bringing me rightly down to earth. America, he said: it takes all kinds.

Winchester is the author of numerous books, including most recently Atlantic and The Alice Behind Wonderland.

Join the Discussion