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Although Samuel Johnson once remarked that "patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels," over the course of the history of the United States we have seen our share of heroes: patriots who have willingly put their lives at risk for this country and, especially, its principles. And this is even more remarkable given that the United States is a country founded on the principles of equality and democracy that encourage individuality and autonomy far more readily than public spiritedness and self-sacrifice.
Walter Berns's Making Patriots is a pithy and provocative essay on precisely this paradox. How is patriotism inculcated in a system that, some argue, is founded on self-interest? Expertly and intelligibly guiding the reader through the history and philosophy of patriotism in a republic, from the ancient Greeks through contemporary life, Berns considers the unique nature of patriotism in the United States and its precarious state. And he argues that while both public education and the influence of religion once helped to foster a public-minded citizenry, the very idea of patriotism is currently under attack.
Berns finds the best answers to his questions in the thought and words of Abraham Lincoln, who understood perhaps better than anyone what the principles of democracy meant and what price adhering to them may exact. The graves at Arlington and Gettysburg and Omaha Beach in Normandy bear witness to the fact that self-interested individuals can become patriots, and Making Patriots is a compelling exploration of how this was done and how it might be again.
While we rally 'round the flag, boys,
Rally once again,
Shouting the Battle Cry of Freedom!
-George F. Root
Although it has been amended, formally as well as by judicial
interpretation, the Constitution written in 1787 has ordered the affairs
of this nation for more than two hundred years. We have become so
accustomed to it that we might take its longevity for granted, but it is,
in fact, remarkable, especially when compared with the experience of other
peoples. There are more now, but when I last had reason to look into this
matter-in 1983, as a member of the American delegation to the UN
Commission on Human Rights in Geneva-there were 164 countries in the
world, and all but six of them (Britain, New Zealand, Israel, Saudi
Arabia, Oman, and Libya) had written constitutions. But of those 158
written constitutions, more than half had been written after 1974, and, if
the past is any guide, many of them will be rewritten or replaced in the
future. France, for a conspicuous example, has had five republican
constitutions in the period when we have had one, and, to update the old
joke involving the cynical Paristaxi driver, "there'll be a sixth."
Many factors account for our success, not the least of them being the
Constitution itself and the remarkably learned and talented men who
drafted it. (Jefferson, in Paris at the time, called the Constitutional
Convention an "assembly of demi-gods.") Then, unlike France, America did
not have to deal with a sullen nobility, dispossessed by the revolution of
its property and privileges but not of its hopes to regain them.
(Tocqueville had this in mind when he said that the "great advantage of
the Americans is that they arrived at a state of democracy without having
to endure a democratic revolution, and that they [were] born equal instead
of becoming so.") Unlike Poland, this country was not surrounded by
powerful neighbors with hostile intentions; and (according to Federalist
2) it began with a people "speaking the same language" (unlike Belgium),
"professing the same religion" (unlike what was Yugoslavia), "attached to
the same principles of government" (unlike Spain), "very similar in their
manners and customs" (unlike Canada), and a people who had established
their general liberty and independence "by fighting side by side
throughout a long and bloody war." Abraham Lincoln referred to them as
"the patriots of seventy-six" and wondered whether the men of his time
(and ours) would be prepared to do as they did. He had reason to wonder
about this, especially because what they did in 1776 was to fight for a
principle, or an idea, that later generations might take for granted or
I said in the first chapter of this book that patriotism means love of
country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it,
perhaps even to give one's life for it. But, aside from the legendary
Spartans, why should anyone be willing to do this? Why, especially, should
Americans be willing to do this? In theory, this nation began with
self-interested men, by nature private men, men naturally endowed not with
duties or obligations but with certain unalienable rights, the private
rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of a happiness that each defines
for himself, and, again in theory, government is instituted only "to
secure these rights." So, to repeat the question, why should
self-interested men believe it in their interest to give their lives for
the idea or promise of their country?
As one might expect, Lincoln provided the best answer to this question. I
refer here, at least initially, not to the Gettysburg Address, or any
other of his formal and famous speeches, but to an informal (in fact,
extemporaneous) "address" delivered from the White House balcony to the
men of the 166th Ohio regiment on the evening of August 22, 1864. He began
by thanking them for their service to the country and continued by saying
I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to
soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of
success in this contest. It is not merely for to-day, but for all time
to come that we should perpetuate for our children's children this great
and free government, which we have enjoyed all our lives. I beg you to
remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. I happen
temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that
any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has.
It is in order that each of you may have through this free government
which we have enjoyed, an open field and a fair chance for your
industry, enterprise and intelligence: that you may all have equal
privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human
aspirations. It is for this the struggle should be maintained, that we
may not lose our birthright.... The nation is worth fighting for, to
secure such an inestimable jewel.
Everything Lincoln says is true: their interests were bound up with the
country's interests; in a way, their interests, if not identical with the
country's interests, were dependent on them. But one has to wonder whether
this argument would carry any weight with "the summer soldier and the
sunshine patriot," who, as Thomas Paine wrote even in 1776, "will shrink
from the service of their country." Such persons might see that the
country deserves to be defended, but also that it is in their interest
that someone else do the defending; their motto is, "Let George do it."
Jean-Jacques Rousseau had these calculating men in mind when he said, in
effect, that reasoning on the basis of self-interest alone would not lead
anyone to put his life at risk for another or for his country.
The Founders were aware of this problem. They knew, and accepted as a
fact, that the nation was formed by self-interested men, men, as John
Locke puts it, naturally in a "state of perfect freedom to order their
actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit ...
without asking leave or depending on the will of any other man." But
they also knew, as Locke knew, that these men ceased to be autonomous, or
simply self-interested men, when they entered civil society and agreed to
be governed. That agreement made them citizens, and a citizen is obliged
to think of his fellows and of the whole of which he is a part. This
requires that he possess certain qualities of character, or virtues, and,
as Madison says in Federalist 55, "republican government presupposes the
existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form [of
government]." Because these qualities cannot be taken for granted, they
must somehow be cultivated.
So it was that Lincoln, as I explained at some length in chapter 5, used
his words and the occasion of the Civil War to promote a love of country,
reminding us that as citizens we are bound to each other and across the
generations by a cause we hold in common, that there is a price to be paid
for what he called (in his address to the Ohio regiment) "our birthright,"
and that we are indebted to those who have already paid it. So, too, a
grateful nation erects monuments and memorials to him and the Founders, to
the end that generations of Americans might stand in awe of them and of
their words carved in the walls of the memorials; and it names its states,
counties, cities, parks, boulevards, and schools after them. Their stories
are the nation's story, and telling it should be the nation's business; in
fact, it should be an important part of the civics curriculum in our
schools. It is a way of inculcating in children a reverence for the past
and its heroes, with the view of causing them to love their country. More
generally, it is a way of preparing them to be citizens. We used to do all
this, but it is rarely done today. Our schools teach "social studies," but
neglect American history and biographies; and while our universities
continue to offer courses in political theory, the theory taught is no
longer what it was when Jefferson proposed the teaching of Locke's
treatises and Sidney's discourses on government. Locke and Sidney,
Montesquieu and even Rousseau, have given way to Marx, Nietzsche, and
Heidegger, none of them a champion of constitutional government.
It is important to understand that America is the result of the coming
together of theory and practice, and nowhere is this more evident than in
the men who founded it. They were both political theorists and political
practitioners, or, to put it differently, there was not then, as there is
now, a division between intellectuals and politicians. The Declaration of
Independence was drafted by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin
Franklin, men who had distinguished political careers, but who also wrote
books and scientific papers, and founded universities (Jefferson, the
University of Virginia; and Franklin, the Philadelphia Academy, which
became the University of Pennsylvania). Not only that, but Franklin was
one of the founders of our first so-called learned society (the American
Philosophical Society), and Jefferson served as one of its first
presidents. As for James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay, they
combined to write The Federalist (or Federalist Papers), which has been
described in our own time as "the most important work in political science
that has ever been written, or is likely ever to be written, in the United
But where there was once a unity there is now a division. Our politicians
typically know nothing about what is going on in the world of political
theory, and our theorists typically do not believe it part of their job to
promote the cause of republican government. Some do-those who are not
Marxists or "postmodernists"-but even they are likely to teach a version
of republicanism different from that espoused by the Founders. There are
no citizens in this new version, not in any meaningful sense, and no
common good, only "autonomous" individuals, each with his own
idiosyncratic view of the good. It follows-or is said to follow-that
government may not put the weight of its authority behind any particular
view of the good. On all such matters, it must be neutral or, as the
current cant would have it, nonjudgmental.
This new republican theory made its first public appearance in the
dissenting opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in a free
speech case decided by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1925.
Holmes said, and among libertarians became famous for saying, "If, in the
long run, the beliefs expressed in proletarian dictatorship are destined
to be accepted by the dominant forces of the community, the only meaning
of free speech is that they should be given their chance and have their
way." This view was repeated, again in a dissenting opinion, by Justice
Hugo Black in a Communist Party case in 1961. As he put it, "education and
contrary argument" may provide an adequate defense against communist (or
fascist) speech, but if that "remedy is not sufficient," he added, echoing
Holmes, "the only meaning of free speech must be that the revolutionary
ideas will be allowed to prevail." First expressed by dissenters, this is
now the accepted or prevailing view. The only meaning of free speech turns
out to mean that it is worse to punish the advocacy of Stalinism or
Hitlerism than to be ruled by a local Stalin or Hitler. This, quite
obviously, could not have been the view held by James Madison and the
other members of the Congress who drafted the First Amendment in 1789.
They were sensible republicans.
Among other things, they knew what the Founders generally knew, and what
they emphatically say in Federalist 2, namely, when instituting a
government, the people are expected to surrender "some of their natural
rights, in order to vest [the government] with requisite powers." But
Holmes and Black are unmindful of this. Unlike Madison and the other
authors of the First Amendment, they treat the constitutional right of
freedom of speech as if it were a natural right, the right men possessed
in the state of nature; there, as autonomous individuals, men might speak
(and do) as they please without regard to political consequences because,
there being no political community, nothing said (or done) could have
political consequences. But, as the Founders made clear, that ceased to be
the case when men entered civil society and formed a political community.
Under what is now the prevailing view of the First Amendment, however, men
retain the right to speak as they please, regardless of the consequences
of their speech, because the government is forbidden to weigh those
consequences or take them into account. Just as Congress may not make any
law favoring religion, especially one religion over another, so it may not
favor, or put the weight of its authority behind, one or another view of
republican government. Accordingly, while Americans, out of habit, might
continue to "pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of
America, and to the Republic for which it stands," the Republic itself
stands for nothing in particular, which means that the flag stands for
nothing in particular. This, of course, was not the view of those who
designed it. For them the flag, and its ceremonies, was one of the means
of promoting patriotism.
The flag carried by the Continental army in January 1776 had thirteen
stripes and the British ensign in the upper left-hand corner; but, after
we declared our independence in July of that year, the Continental
Congress resolved that "the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen
stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white
in a blue field, representing a new constellation," which is to say, a new
and different kind of country. Congress later declared the "Star-Spangled
Banner" to be the national anthem, and June 14 to be Flag Day, and, later
still, John Philip Sousa's " Stars and Stripes Forever" was designated the
national march. As Madison indicated, republican government especially
requires public-spiritedness, and Congress obviously intended the
celebration of the flag-on Flag Day, for example-to be one of the means of
In due course, the governments of the United States and forty-eight of the
fifty states enacted statutes forbidding the burning (and, generally, the
desecration) of the flag. They saw it as the symbol of this new country,
this novus ordo seclorum, a country dedicated to the principles set down
in the Declaration of Independence: liberty, equality of opportunity, and
religious toleration. Its friends pledge allegiance to it and salute it,
and its enemies burn it.
Excerpted from Making Patriots
by Walter Berns
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. Classical Patriotism, Especially the Spartan
2. God before Country?
3. Commerce and Country
4. Educating Young Patriots
5. Lincoln, Patriotism's Poet
6. "What Country Have I?"
7. The Patriot's Flag
Posted October 26, 2007
I read this book years ago when it was first published. I thought it was exceptionally moving and insightful. It is a great gift for the patriots in your life. Berns does a great job explaining the admirable uniqueness of the U.S.A. Specifically we were the first country founded on an ideal, a noble ideal, of inalienable rights to freedom. He notes that in practice we fell short (slavery), but this was the first great compromise that allowed the United States to be born in the first place. The Civil War was our correction and inevitable blood payment for falling short of the founding ideals. The literary professional reviews are clearly left wing biased as usual, but more blatantly because Mr Berns is an AEI scholar and therefore not to be trusted by 'enlightened' liberals who, of course, know that America is the root of all evil.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.