Reasonable Patriotism

Guest Commentary

G. K. Chesterton, an Englishman, remarked in 1922 that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed.”  That creed was given 230 years ago by Thomas Jefferson, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  As Lincoln said one afternoon in Gettysburg, America was, and continues to be, the only country dedicated to a proposition.  It is, in the truest sense of the word, exceptional.

As such, it is difficult to compare America to other nations … nations which are largely defined by ethnic and geographic ties.  A recent study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago points to this difficulty.  The study attempted to measure the relative patriotism of 34 nations.  Of those 34 America was, perhaps not surprisingly, the most patriotic.  Making matters less clear, Venezuela was a very close second.

But what is patriotism?  According to the study, patriotism can be measured as the sum total of positive citizen sentiment regarding a short list of social factors: political influence, social security, economic success, science and technology, sports, arts and literature, the military, history, fair treatment of all groups in society, and how democracies function. While this list can yield all sorts of interesting cross-national observations, it cannot measure American patriotism, because American patriotism is, in the end, the love of an idea.  It is acceptance of the proposition.  Patriotism virtually everywhere else is nothing more than love of a place.  And be that love the result of a fine literary tradition or a first-class soccer program, it differs in kind from the patriotism of an American as he reads the Declaration of Independence.  Jefferson might have referred to this as self-evident.

Jefferson might also have referred to American patriotism as reasonable patriotism.  After all, the proposition, our proposition, would have to be true in order to serve simultaneously as our founding principle and our defining characteristic.  And could we reasonably doubt the truth of Jefferson’s profession of human equality?

Jefferson held that we are all equal in the one way that mattered in terms of governance: we are all equally human.  Our equal rights flow from this basic human equality, and accordingly no one can rule over another without that man’s consent.  With one sweep of his pen Jefferson dismissed kings, princes, and despots, and the political trajectory of the world was changed forever.  And it was clearly changed for the better.  Government from that point forward was a matter of right, not power.  The world was imperfect in 1776, just as it is imperfect now, but from that day to this every form of inequality has been met with a Jeffersonian argument.  And that argument has been extraordinarily effective over the last 230 years.  From independence in the 18th century to abolition in the 19th century to women’s rights in the 20th century, the Declaration of Independence paved the way to a more perfect union … a more just America.

The rest of the world simply understands these concerns in a very different manner.  In response to the National Opinion Research Center’s study, Eric Wingerter, a spokesman for the Venezuelan government, said that many in Venezuela believe that President Hugo Chavez is fostering a new sense of national pride. “There’s been a real emphasis on rediscovering what it means to be Venezuelan,” he said.  But what does it mean to be Venezuelan?  There is no clear answer to the question apart from some reference to the geography of South America and a shared history beginning with the fall of Gran Columbia in 1830.

What, on the other hand, does it mean to be an American?  This is a question that can be answered, and the answer goes well beyond geography.  To be an American is to accept the creed.  It is to accept that some truths are self-evident, and these truths are the bedrock upon which all legitimate government rests.  The American creed is thus the first principle of justice itself.  Patriotism in America, then, is not the sum total of happy feelings that the American people have about a certain place.  It has nothing to do with sports, literature, or social security.  Patriotism in America is the reasonable faith the people have in the truth of their founding proposition. It is a truth that remains self-evident, and America remains the land of reasonable patriots.

James R. Harrigan

James R. Harrigan

James R. Harrigan is a Professor of Political Science at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and a regular contributor to the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.

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