The True Meaning of Patriotism

Patriotism brochure

(This essay is adapted from an earlier version published in September 2002 on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington)

Patriotism these days is like Christmas — lots of people caught up in a festive atmosphere replete with lights and spectacles. We hear reminders about “the true meaning” of the occasion — and we may even mutter a few guilt-ridden words to that effect ourselves — but like most people, each of us spends more time and thought in parties, gift-giving, and the other paraphernalia of a secularized holiday than we do deepening our devotion to the “true meaning.” The attention we pay the fictional Santa Claus rivals that which we pay the One whose name the holiday is meant to hallow.

So it is with patriotism. Walk down Main Street America and ask one citizen after another what it means and with few exceptions, you’ll get a passel of the most self-righteous but superficial and often dead-wrong answers. America’s Founders, the men and women who gave us reason to be patriotic in the first place, would think we’ve lost our way if they could see us now.

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Especially since the attacks of 9/11, Americans are feeling “patriotic.” For most, that mere feeling suffices to make one a solid patriot. But if I’m right, it’s time for Americans to take a refresher course to appreciate what being a patriot should really mean.

Patriotism is not love of country, if by “country” you mean scenery — amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesty and the like. Almost every country has pretty collections of rocks, water, and stuff that people grow and eat. If that’s what patriotism is all about, then Americans have precious little for which we can claim any special or unique love. And surely, patriotism cannot mean giving one’s life for a river or a mountain range.

Emma Goldman, in a 1911 essay, rightly disparaged this parochial, location-based concept. That kind of patriotism, she said, “assumes that our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by an iron gate. Those who have had the fortune of being born on some particular spot, consider themselves better, nobler, grander, more intelligent than the living beings inhabiting any other spot. It is, therefore, the duty of everyone living on that chosen spot to fight, kill, and die in the attempt to impose his superiority upon all the others.” Like Emma Goldman, I’d like to think there’s something about being a patriotic American that’s far removed from the young Nazi soldier who marched into battle for “the Fatherland.” After all, he thought he was patriotic too.

Patriotism is not blind trust in anything our leaders tell us or do. That’s just stupidity, and it replaces some very lofty concepts about the true meaning of the word with the mindless goose-stepping of cowardly sycophants.

Patriotism is not picnics, fireworks, or a day off work. At best, those are outward manifestations of something that could be patriotism, but it might also for some be nothing more than a desire to have a little fun.

Patriotism is not simply showing up to vote. You need to know a lot more about what motivates a voter before you judge his patriotism. He might be casting a ballot because he just wants something at someone else’s expense. Maybe he doesn't much care where the politician he's hiring gets it. Remember Dr. Johnson’s wisdom: "Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels." Others have wisely counseled that an ill-informed people can easily vote a democratic republic into bankruptcy and oblivion.

Waving the flag can be an outward sign of patriotism, but let’s not cheapen the term by ever suggesting that it’s anything more than a sign. And while it’s always fitting to mourn those who lost their lives in its defense, that too does not fully define patriotism.

People in every country and in all times have expressed feelings of something we flippantly call "patriotism" but that just begs the question. What is this thing, anyway? Can it be so cheap and meaningless that a few gestures make you patriotic?

Not in my book.

I subscribe to a patriotism rooted in ideas that in turn gave birth to a country, but it’s those ideas that I think of when I’m feeling patriotic. I think a patriotic American is one who reveres the ideas that motivated the Founders and compelled them, in many instances, to put their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the line.

What ideas? Read the Declaration of Independence again. Or, if you’re like most Americans these days, read it for the very first time. It’s all there. All men are created equal. They are endowed not by government but by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. Premier among those rights are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Government must be limited to protecting the peace and preserving our liberties, and doing so through the consent of the governed. It’s the right of a free people to rid themselves of a government that becomes destructive of those ends, as our Founders did in a supreme act of courage and defiance more than 200 years ago.

Call it freedom. Call it liberty. Call it whatever you want, but it’s the bedrock on which this nation was founded and from which we stray at our peril. It’s what has defined us as Americans. It’s what almost everyone who has ever lived on this planet has yearned for, though only a few have ever risen above selfishness, ignorance, or barbarism to attain it. It makes life worth living, which means it’s worth fighting and dying for.

I know that this concept of patriotism puts an “American” spin on the term. But I don’t know how to be patriotic for Uganda or Paraguay. I hope the Ugandans and Paraguayans have lofty ideals they celebrate when they feel patriotic, but whether or not they do is a question you’ll have to ask them. I can only tell you what patriotism means to me as an American.

I understand that America has often fallen short of the superlative ideas expressed in the Declaration. That hasn’t diminished my reverence for them, nor has it dimmed my hope that future generations of Americans will be re-inspired by them. Whatever our shortcomings, the fact remains that our Founders bequeathed us a marvelous mechanism whereby we can fix those flaws and perhaps someday shepherd our form of government to as close to perfection as may be humanly possible. This brand of patriotism, in fact, gets me through the roughest and most cynical of times.

My patriotism did not flag when one president debased the Oval Office with a young intern, or when another one covered up an illegal break-in. My patriotism is never affected by any politician’s failures, or any shortcoming of some government policy, or any slump in the economy or stock market. I’ve never felt my patriotism to be for sale or up for a vote. I never cease to get that rush that comes from watching Old Glory flapping in the breeze, no matter how far today’s generations have departed from the original meaning of those stars and stripes. No outcome of any election, no matter how adverse, makes me feel any less devoted to the ideals our Founders put to pen in 1776.

Indeed, as life’s experiences mount, the wisdom of what giants like Jefferson and Madison bestowed upon us becomes ever more apparent to me. I get more fired up than ever to help others come to appreciate the same things.

During a recent visit to the land of my ancestors, Scotland, I came across a few very old words that gave me pause. Though they preceded our Declaration of Independence by 456 years, and come from 3,000 miles away, I can hardly think of anything ever written here that more powerfully stirs in me the patriotism I’ve defined above.

In 1320, in an effort to explain why they had spent the previous 30 years in bloody battle to expel the invading English, Scottish leaders ended their Declaration of Arbroath with this line: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

Freedom — understanding it, living it, and teaching it to posterity. That, my fellow Americans, is what patriotism should mean to each of us today.


(Lawrence W. Reed is president emeritus of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan.)