What is Patriotism?
The country we variously identify as America or the United States and the government we recognize as the Republic or less often the Union has a distinctive origin. Unlike many if not all other countries and governments, these related entities are the result of a rare confluence of time, place, culture, and individual actors. Neither the country nor its government could have emerged if any of the factors had been significantly different than they in fact were.
The American Republic came into being near the end of a time in European history often called the Enlightenment. While there is some controversy concerning this stage of European history, there is little dispute that the men who invented America were inspired by a set of ideas and ideals that had great currency and acceptance among learned Europeans at the time. Although these men lived in North America, intellectually they were Europeans and as Edmund Burke told the British Parliament, these men paid more attention to the books written about these ideas and ideals than the people of England. Therefore, it can be truthfully said as it has been, “America emerged from the mind and not from the mist.”
Authentic American patriotism is true to the ideas and ideals that inspired the original American patriots, the Founders and the Framers. It is not bellicose and it is not confined to times of war or reserved only for the military. American patriots, of course, honor those who fight our country’s battles, but they believe patriotism requires a constant vigilance and ongoing dedication to the principles and purposes of the Founders and the Framers.
Patriotism is not an unconditional love of one’s fellow citizens and a hatred, fear, or loathing of all other nationalities. It is not frenzied flag waving and raucous shouts of “USA, USA.” It is neither wearing nor not wearing a flag pin on one’s lapel. Latitude and longitude do not circumscribe patriotism. Patriotism is neither strident, nor self-righteous, nor short-lived. It is thoughtful, temperate, and tenacious. Patriotism tells each true patriot, to “Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” True patriots understand as does Cindy Sheehan that it is not patriotism when you simply say “My country right or wrong.”
True patriotism assures one and all that Carl Schurz was correct when he said - “I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.” Authentic patriotism informs one that if our country is worth fighting and possibly dying for in time of war, we should highly resolve that in times of peace it is worth living for and living in.
In November, 2011, the nature of authentic, American patriotism is not merely an academic concern. The re-election campaign of the nation’s first president of African ancestry is underway. As with the first three years of his four year term of office, this last year will be filled with subtle and blatant attempts to undercut his legitimacy. There is, unfortunately, a cohort of American citizens who still agree with the Dred Scott opinion even if they never heard of it. This cohort cannot accept that black Americans are truly Americans and most assuredly cannot accept an American of African descent as the President of the United States. Furthermore, they do so on the basis of what they assert is patriotism. Consequently, it is vital to clarify the precise nature of genuine patriotism.
The contention of this book is that authentic, American patriotism is founded on and grounded in the principles and purposes that launched this human endeavor. Fidelity to these principles and purposes and their effective realization in American society is the essential characteristic of any patriotism truly worthy of the name. This patriotism is the fundamental obligation of every American whether in or out of political office. The citizenry in whom true sovereignty resides must have enough authentic patriotism to require it of those holding or seeking office. It is a truism that we get the politicians we deserve. If the citizenry is shallow, narrow-minded, and mean-spirited, those they elect will hardly be better. If the citizenry is profoundly committed to the principles and purposes of the Republic, those they elect can hardly be any less.
A truly patriotic perspective acknowledges that politics is too often obsessively partisan and too heavily dominated by striving for what is advantageous to a party rather than seeking what is beneficial to our country. True patriotism willingly shuns the temptations of faction and emphasizes love of our country and our brothers and sisters over the clamor of the current cause célèbre. A genuinely patriotic perspective looks fondly back to the high points of our past and confidently forward to the bright potential of our future. This perspective understands that authentic patriotism is volitional. It is a conscious choice based on knowledge, comprehension, and commitment. Patriotism shows its bona fides through one’s words and one’s deeds not in the short term, but throughout a long twilight struggle against the common enemies of humankind – bigotry, hatred, ignorance, duplicity, envy, and greed.
A soundly patriotic perspective realizes that genuinely loving one’s country is not enough. No matter how fervent one’s emotion may be, one must faithfully adhere to the principles and advance the purposes upon which and for which the country exists. One must also forego bitterness and hatred toward others while doing so. A soundly patriotic perspective sees one’s country not as a certain territory, or array of mountains, rivers, fields, and forests, but a set of principles, purposes, and promises. Authentic patriotism is dedication and service to that set of principles, purposes, and promises. True patriots share Nathan Hale’s regret at having only one life to lose for their country, but also resolve to live their lives in service to the ideals that make their country worth loving. A proper patriotism swears allegiance not merely to one’s country or its flag, but to justice, humanity, and a relentless endeavor to make one’s country honorable as well as prosperous and strong. True patriotism reveals itself not only by the pronouncements it makes, but also by precepts it remembers and the people it honors. Genuine patriotism understands that its purpose is to reclaim the soul of the Republic. When it stands and states that Americans can and must do better, it is not making a challenge to their patriotism, but issuing a call for renewed effort and resolute exhibition of actual, active patriotism.
Mock patriotism is either the last or first refuge of scoundrels, depending on the circumstances, while true patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than any other and loves its country enough to constantly call it to a higher plain. A true patriot understands and demonstrates that dissent is often the highest form of patriotism. Such a person knows that “Wrong is wrong no matter who says it” and that blind acceptance of official policy often betrays the great principles, profound purposes, and cherished promises that make patriotism a worthy virtue. An authentically patriotic perspective cherishes America’s virtues and confronts America’s deficiencies. It does not boast its country will be the greatest; it vows its country will be the best. True patriotism holds a country that is good may well become great, but knows a great country will not endure if it ceases to be good. Sound patriotism understands the mores of the market as they pervade our society imperil our ideals and institutions. It realizes that a need to calculate the cost and profit of everything will render us oblivious to the value of anything including loyalty, honesty, courage, honor, and commitment to one’s family and one’s country.
A truly patriotic perspective agrees with George Washington –
"The name of American, which belongs to us, in our national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism.... It should be the highest ambition of all Americans to extend their views beyond themselves, and to bear in mind that their conduct will not only affect themselves, their country, and their immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn."
Therefore, with a good conscience the only sure reward and history the judge of their achievements, true patriots go forth to lead the land they love. Knowing that as they do this, the energy, integrity, devotion, and fidelity they bring to this endeavor will illuminate the country and those who serve it, and hoping the glow from that fire will truly light the world.
Our words must be our bond; therefore, let us study our founding documents for the principles they contain and the purposes they set forth. Then, let us proceed to finish the great work remaining before us and ensure that government of the people, by the people, for the people does not perish from the earth.