History Stories


America’s Honorary Citizens

As Congress considers honorary U.S. citizenship for Spaniard Bernardo de Gálvez, learn about the seven foreign nationals who have received the tribute.

1. Winston Churchill (1963)

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The former British prime minister and staunch American ally during World War II was the first foreign national to receive honorary United States citizenship. Eight states had already granted honorary citizenship to Churchill, whose mother was American, before Congress and President John F. Kennedy followed suit. Kennedy’s presidential proclamation praised the man whose “bravery, charity and valor, both in war and in peace, have been a flame of inspiration in freedom’s darkest hour.” While the 88-year-old Churchill watched a satellite relay of the White House ceremony from his London home, his son, Randolph, accepted the honor on his behalf. Churchill also received an honorary citizen’s identification document that appeared very similar to a passport but was not a valid for travel. No other honorary citizen has received a similar document.

2. Raoul Wallenberg (1981)

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When Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, the United States War Refugee Board asked neutral Sweden to aid in the rescue of Hungarian Jews facing death in Nazi concentration camps. Wallenberg, a 31-year-old Swedish businessman-turned-diplomat, risked his life and survived at least one assassination attempt to save as many as 100,000 innocent people from the Holocaust by distributing protective passports, setting up safe houses and bribing Nazi officials. After the Soviet Union occupied Hungary in January 1945, it took Wallenberg into custody, and he was never seen in public again. Although the Soviets reported a decade later that Wallenberg had died of a heart attack in a Moscow prison in 1947, there were reports that the Swede was still alive behind the Iron Curtain at the time he was declared an honorary U.S. citizen. It was hoped that the measure would help pressure the Soviets to disclose information about Wallenberg’s whereabouts, but even after the end of the Cold War his ultimate fate remains a mystery.

3. William Penn (1984)

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In lieu of money, Britain’s King Charles II settled a debt owned to the Penn family in 1681 by granting William Penn 45,000 square miles of land north of Maryland. Penn’s colony, which he named Pennsylvania in honor of his father, was a religious haven for his fellow Quakers and settlers of other faiths. Penn championed the rights of representative government, personal conscience, religious freedom, public education and trial by jury, principles that would be incorporated into the U.S. Constitution. More than 300 years after Penn first set foot in his new colony, the Englishman received honorary citizenship in a country that had yet to be established at the time of his death.

4. Hannah Callowhill Penn (1984)

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Although she spent only two years living in Pennsylvania, Penn’s second wife, 24 years his junior, also received honorary U.S. citizenship for her advocacy of the same principles of liberty championed by her husband. William and Hannah sailed back to England in 1701 and never returned to Pennsylvania. When William took ill in 1712 and began to suffer a series of debilitating strokes, Hannah managed the colony’s official business and sent letters of instruction to the colonial governor until her husband’s death in 1718. She then became Pennsylvania’s acting proprietor until her own death in 1726, which made her the longest-serving woman in control of a British proprietary colony.

5. Mother Teresa (1996)

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A year before her death, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu, known to the world as Mother Teresa, became the only person besides Churchill to be named an honorary U.S. citizen while still living. Although the Albanian nun who had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom spent little time in the United States, the Missionaries of Charity, which she founded in 1950, operated soup kitchens, emergency shelters, after-school programs, nursing homes and other ministries across the country. In announcing her honorary citizenship, the U.S. ambassador to India, the country to which Mother Teresa arrived in 1929, called the 86-year-old nun “a daughter of America.”

6. Marquis de Lafayette (2002)

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Recruited to the patriot cause during the American Revolution, the French aristocrat received the rank of major general in the Continental Army in 1777 despite the fact that he was only 19 years old. After being wounded during the Battle of Brandywine and spending the winter at Valley Forge, Lafayette forged a close relationship with George Washington. The Frenchman provided badly needed tactical leadership and secured the aid of his government, which proved pivotal in the war’s outcome. Lafayette’s forces helped corner and defeat British Lieutenant General Lord Cornwallis at the war’s decisive battle at Yorktown in 1781. Three years later, Maryland, followed by Virginia, conferred citizenship upon Lafayette, but the State Department determined in 1935 that the measures did not result in Lafayette becoming a United States citizen following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In 1824, Lafayette became the first foreign dignitary to address Congress, and nearly two centuries later the same body made him an honorary American citizen.

7. Casimir Pulaski (2009)

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Another European nobleman who volunteered for the patriot cause in the American Revolution, the Polish military officer declared to Washington on his arrival in America: “I came here, where freedom is being defended, to serve it, and to live or die for it.” Pulaski gained a reputation as a skilled horseman and distinguished himself at the Battle of Brandywine where his cavalry charge helped save Washington and his forces. When Congress established a cavalry in 1778, it put Pulaski in charge. After helping to dislodge the British from Charleston, South Carolina, the man called the “father of the American cavalry” suffered mortal wounds while leading an assault on horseback in an attempt to break the British siege of Savannah, Georgia. Since 1929, Congress has declared the anniversary of his death—October 11—as Pulaski Day.

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