Patriot is a word much abused in today’s America. The simplest definition of patriot is one who vigorously supports his country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors. Yet, many who wave the flag, associate the nation with a superstition (one nation, under God), support every war, approve laws dubious at best if not unconstitutional (e.g., The Patriot Act) render patriotism unattractive. Today, many would say, If that’s patriotism, count me out.
What is patriotic often changes with conditions – and the nature of the population. Today, we consider George Washington, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Payne, John Hancock and all the founders patriots. However, in 1775, loyalists in the colonies thought them conspirators, traitors and/or seditionists. As far as the government was concerned (i.e., the one in England of which they were citizens), they most definitely were not considered patriots. How times and perceptions can change.
So, are you a patriot? Do you want to be a patriot?
Personally, I think the appropriate answer to the question (s) depends. We might choose to be patriots about some things, not so much about others. Some facts about America and its policies, traditions, actions and representations we support vigorously and would defend against enemies or detractors. However, sometimes those enemies and detractors (i.e., critics) are the very same folks who in time might be judged the true patriots. As noted, it depends.
There are some things about this country that many of today’s flag-waving, USA USA, We’re # 1 patriots don’t want to learn, think about or acknowledge. Many Americans, perhaps a majority, know little about some extraordinary realities of the nation’s history. I’ll give you one example. The example I have in mind reflects a fact about one entire section of the country, the Southern states. I believe the situation, what it reflects and how it is viewed today shows that there is profound ignorance about the evil nature of a good proportion of the American people who lived at that time.
In 1848, the United States had just won a war with Mexico War that gave it lots of new territory, soon to be states. The president, Zachary Taylor, was from Louisiana and owned slaves. The great question was whether the new states would be slave or free. Imagine that – what a choice. What kind of people would enslave others? Well, the answer obviously, is the people of the south at the time. Its leaders in the Congress and the Southern States wanted a new tier of slave states. Oddly, Taylor himself was against more slave states. Sentiment in the North, while not enthusiastic against slavery in the south where it had a firm hold, also opposed more of it elsewhere. Compromises were made by 1850, brokered in good part with the aide of a southern Senator Henry Clay and Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois – with the support of the new president, Millard Fillmore. In this bargain with the devil if there ever were such a creature (not), the South got a fugitive slave law. A more villainous, heinous, despicable betrayal of the Founder’s hopes for the nation surely never came to light before this time. The Fugitive Slave Law required the federal government to arrest and return any slaves who made it to the north seeking freedom from oppression in the south. Returning slaves was the patriotic thing to do.
The good news is that this law would eventually create the very conditions that convinced previously neutral whites to oppose slavery. It also contributed to secession and the Civil War, a war that, at least theoretically and legally, would liberate the slaves. (Of course, things did not turn out so well for at least a century after the Emancipation Proclamation but that’s another story.)
Today, patriots in the south honor those who fought for slavery. There are parades in their honor. Statues line a main avenue in Richmond. Robert E. Lee, who turned against his country to lead a rebellion, is judged a hero by most people throughout the present southern states. It’s mind-boggling and infamous.
Who better to put the nature of the southern (white) people then and their apologists today in perspective than Robert Green Ingersoll (1833-1899), who fought valiantly as a Colonel in the Army of the Republic. In his Decoration Day Oration in 1882, he said:
“… in the South, the negro toiled unpaid, and mothers wept while babes were sold, and at the auction-block husbands and wives speechlessly looked the last good-bye. Fugitives, lighted by the Northern Star, sought liberty on English soil, and were, by Northern men, thrust back to whip and chain. The great statesmen, the successful politicians, announced that law had compromised with crime, that justice had been bribed, and that time had barred appeal. A race was left without a right, without a hope. The future had no dawn, no star — nothing but ignorance and fear, nothing but work and want. This was the conclusion of the statesmen, the philosophy of the politicians — of constitutional expounders: — this was decided by courts and ratified by the Nation…Ours appeared to be the most prosperous of Nations. But it was only appearance. The statesmen and the politicians were deceived. Real victories can be won only for the Right; The triumph of justice is the only Peace. Such is the nature of things. He who enslaves another cannot be free. He who attacks the right, assaults himself. The mistake our fathers made had not been corrected. The foundations of the Republic were insecure. The great dome of the temple was clad in the light of prosperity, but the corner-stones were crumbling. Four millions of human beings were enslaved. Party cries had been mistaken for principles — partisanship for patriotism — success for justice.
But Pity pointed to the scarred and bleeding backs of slaves; Mercy heard the sobs of mothers raft of babes, and justice held aloft the scales, in which one drop of blood shed by a master’s lash, outweighed a Nation’s gold. There were a few men, a few women, who had the courage to attack this monstrous crime. They found it entrenched in constitutions, statutes, and decisions — barricaded and bastioned by every department and by every party. Politicians were its servants, statesmen its attorneys, judges its menials, presidents its puppets, and upon its cruel altar had been sacrificed our country’s honor. It was the crime of the Nation — of the whole country — North and South responsible alike.”
What kind of a patriot today honors the infamy of that Southern cause? The parades, the statues, the defense of those people and their leaders is grotesque.
Patriotism depends – it depends on human decency, on values of kindness, respect, help for others in need, love and the verities of equality, equal opportunity and a fair regard for everyone’s right to the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. There were a few patriots in the south of that time, no doubt, as there are in the south today. But the history of the Confederacy is a history of shame and treachery, cruelty and dishonor that deserves nothing but our disgust and rejection.
Let’s be very, very careful about the things we associate with patriotism. If our better natures prevail in the future, our heirs may not be so impressed. And let us also be quite clear about the worthiness of causes we associate with patriotism.
These considerations are some of the things that patriotism depends on.