What is Patriotism
Epigraphs to Part 7
Patriotism having become one of our
topics, Johnson suddenly uttered in a strong, determined
tone, an apothegm at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last
refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered that he did not mean
real and genuine love of our country, but that pretended patriotism
which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for
Our country is the world - our
countrymen are all mankind
Would we tread in the paths of
Nor reckon the tyrant's cost?
Who taketh another's liberty,
His freedom is also lost.
Would we win as the strong have ever won?
Make ready to pay the debt.
For the God who reigned over Babylon
Is the God who is reigning yet.
The laws of right are eternal laws,
The judgments of truth are true
My greed-blind masters, I bid you pause
And look on the work you do.
You bind with shackles your fellow man;
Your hands with his blood are wet.
And the God who reigned over Babylon
Is the God who is reigning yet.
- J.A. Edgerton, in "Democratic
Though your word shall run with
power, and your arm reach overseas,
Yet the questing bolt shall find you if you keep not faith with these;
Lest you be at one with Egypt, lest you lie as Rome lies now
In the potter's field of empires, mint and cumin, keep the vow.
Keep the truth your fathers made,
Lest your children grow afraid,
Lest you hear the captives' mothers weeping sore -
There is little worth beside -
They are dead because they lied,
And the young men's feet are at the door.
- Mary Austin in "Land of Sunshine"
for February, 1900
Toll for the death of the Empire!
Through the gloom
Deep and vibrating, speaks the solemn bell
The last dread warning of the coming doom:
His body to the dust; his deeds to hell!
Toll for the death of Empire! Lift the head;
Take off the crown of tyranny and fear;
And let no man do honor at the bier.
Ring for the reign of Freedom.
- Bertrand Shadwell in The
Public, for March 29, 1902
Louis F. Post
The Ethics of Democracy
Part 7, Patriotism
What is Patriotism?
To say that patriotism is love of country begs the
question, for love of country must itself be explained. It cannot mean
love of a country's soil, of its trees and hills and rocks and rills.
If that were its meaning a large proportion of the inhabitants of every
nation would be without love of country, for most of them have none to
love. Not a rood of old mother earth belongs to them, nor can they use
any of it without paying toll to some more fortunate patriot. Love of
country, to be truly such, must be nothing less than love of one's
neighbors within a nation's boundaries.
But love of neighbors means more than a
sentimental affection for what one may call his own - as his wife, his
family, his friends, his house, his horse, his cattle. Love of one's
neighbors within the boundaries of his nation - love, that is, of one's
countrymen - if it be love of them in very truth, must consist of
devotion to those ideals and institutions of the country which
guarantee equal rights to all of its inhabitants.
If that be patriotism, however, then is there a
larger patriotism, a patriotism which embraces the world and is the
political expression of the golden rule. In the purview of this larger
patriotism it is treason to make war save for the preservation of
natural rights. It is treason as well as criminal aggression to pursue
a policy of forcible annexation. For he who truly loves his neighbors
within his own country, who loves them to the extent of cherishing
their rights equally with his own, cannot draw the line at his own
country. He must abhor any invasion by his countrymen of the country of
others, which he would repel if his own were the country invaded.
This larger patriotism is the antithesis of that
spirit of imperialism which, appealing to spurious patriotism, condemns
all opposition as treason. Imperialism would subjugate "inferior"
peoples on the pretense of elevating them; the larger patriotism would
encourage all peoples to elevate themselves. Imperialism is the
national pharisee, who thanks God that he is better than other men. The
larger patriotism is the national apostle, spreading by practice as
well as precept the civilizing principle of Him who rebuked the
Pharisee, and taught men that principle of love which is justice and
that rule of righteousness which directs each to do to others as he
would have others do to him.
The sentiment which expresses itself in the maxim,
"My country, right or wrong," is spurious patriotism. It is nothing but
selflove somewhat diluted. Note the logical gradations: "My country,
right or wrong; my State, right or wrong; my county, right or wrong; my
town or city, right or wrong; my ward, right or wrong; my voting
precinct, right or wrong; my family, right or wrong; myself, right or
This sentiment has been for nearly a century a
favorite with the ambitious who mask their selfish purposes behind the
pretenses of patriotism. It originated quite innocently with an
American naval commander, Commodore Decatur. Upon returning from his
historic expedition to the Mediterranean, he was everywhere the
recipient of public honors; and among the banquets tendered him was one
at Norfolk, the home city of his wife, which came off in April, 1816.
When, in accordance with the custom of the time, he was called upon for
a toast on that occasion, Decatur responded with this sentiment: "Our
Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in
the right; but our country, right or wrong."
Considering its source, the sentiment was a good
one. For Decatur spoke as a naval officer pledged to obey; not as a
citizen invested with a right and charged with a duty to decide. It was
as if he had exclaimed: "I hope my country in her foreign quarrels will
always be in the right; but be she right or be she wrong, I as an
officer of her navy have no choice but to execute her commands."
If a serious-minded constable were to say: "I hope
I may never be required to execute an unjust warrant; but just or
unjust I shall execute it," he would express with reference to one
grade of public service precisely what Decatur expressed, and doubtless
intended to express, with reference to another. Decatur could not have
meant that as a citizen he would vote either to make or to prosecute a
war that he knew to be unrighteous. Such a sentiment would have implied
that he had the instincts of a buccaneer; and this is negatived by the
other words of his toast, in which he prayed that in her intercourse
with foreign nations his country might always be in the right. Clearly
he could have meant no more than that as a military servant of his
country he would obey the lawfully expressed commands of her people.
But the occasion of Decatur's utterance was what
would now be recognized as a jingo banquet. Wine flowed and glory
glistered. Here was one of the toasts: "The Mediterranean! The sea not
more of Greek and Roman than of American glory." This was another: "The
Crescent! Our stars have dimmed its lustre." And here was a third:
"National Glory! A gem above all price, and worthy of every hazard to
sustain its splendor."
It would not be remarkable if in those
circumstances and to that glory-intoxicated party of banqueters,
Decatur's conception of his duty as a naval officer seemed like a
revelation of one of the duties of American citizenship. Such at any
rate must have been their understanding of it, for they gave that
coloring to his words. And so, for nearly a century, Decatur's fair
fame has been tarnished by this low notion, attributed to him, of an
American citizen's duty. Ever since his famous toast, no matter how
mean or wicked the stand the agents of their country have taken, voters
have been adjured in the name of patriotism and even of religion, not
only by party politicians but also by so-called preachers of
righteousness, to vote for their country's side of every controversy,
be it right or wrong.
The voter who follows this advice turns away from
the highest duty that an American citizen can be called upon to
discharge - the duty of keeping his country, as far as his influence
and vote may go, in the path of righteousness. For in America, in
theory at least, the voters are king. Officials are only their
What should we think of an absolute king, who
after his ministers had without his authority adopted an unrighteous
policy, should confirm that policy - knowing it to be
unrighteous and opposing it in his heart because it was unrighteous,
but confirming it upon the plea that he must sustain his country, right
or wrong? What should we think of the king's chaplain if he advised the
king to confirm that policy, arguing that the king must stand by his
country, right or wrong? Yet American citizens, American voters, are
advised to imitate the absolute king we have imagined, whenever they
are urged to use their influence and vote in support of their country's
policy, right or wrong.
It is one thing to advise a constable to execute a
warrant, just or unjust; he is an agent whose business it is to obey
agents that are placed above him. As constable he has no other
responsibility. So it is one thing to advise a military or naval
officer to fight when his superiors order him to, be the cause right or
wrong; he, like the constable, is an agent whose business it is to obey
agents above him. As military or naval officer he has no other
responsibility. But it is a very different thing to advise citizens to
vote for their country's cause, be that cause right or wrong. The
responsibility of the voter cannot be so lightly evaded. There is no
one to shift it to. Voters are charged with the duty of seeing to it
that their country's cause is never wrong. And for this purpose they,
and not their agents or officers, are the court of final appeal.
Even at its best, loyalty to country, as
distinguished from loyalty to right, is a despicable sentiment. It is
often ludicrously so. An instance may be found in a letter from
Madagascar, once published in the London Spectator.
The letter-writer was all unconscious of any satire upon loyalty. He
had nothing in mind but the ignorance of the French soldier he quoted.
This soldier, a corporal to whom loyalty was evidently the first law of
love, had told the letter-writer quite innocently that he "thought it
disloyal and altogether wrong in Christ, when he had been born a Jew,
to turn Christian."
But what is called loyalty to country means
something even lower than the words imply. Boiled down to its dregs,
this loyalist doctrine, "Our country, right or wrong" - not as Decatur
meant it, but as it is commonly understood - is not loyalty to country
at all; it is loyalty to office holders.
Now it is not to be denied that there is virtue in
a certain loyalty to office holders. But this virtuous loyalty is
analogous to that which is due to clients from lawyers. When you have
decided that you have just cause for litigation, you must loyally trust
your lawyer to manage the technical details. But you cannot escape
moral responsibility for making unjust claims and bracing them up with
perjured testimony, on any such plea as that a client must be loyal to
his lawyer right or wrong. The legal technicalities of your case are
one thing; as to them you must trust your lawyer, be he right or wrong.
The essential justice of your cause is another thing; as to that you
must instruct your lawyer, and instruct him right.
So with the relation of voters to office-holders.
As to methods, voters should be loyal to all office holders who are not
reasonably suspected of infidelity to their trust. But as to ultimate
objects, especially if they involve issues of right and wrong, it is
not only the right but the duty of voters to command. The loyalty to an
office-holder which supports his policy right or wrong, so far from
being patriotism is moral treason.
This is the species of loyalty, however, with
which the world is most familiar. It is from it that the impious
doctrine of "divine right" draws all its strength. In our own country,
at the very beginning, the tories - or "loyalists," as they called
themselves - were loyal only to the king. It was their constant cry
that the king must be supported, right or wrong. Three-fourths of a
century later, the same sort of loyalty manifested itself in connection
with the Mexican war, and James Russell Lowell caught it up and laughed
at it in these well-remembered verses:
The side of our country must ollers be
An' Presidunt Polk, you know, he is our country.
An' the angel thet writes all our sins in a book
Puts the debit to him, an' to us the per-contry;
An' John P.
Sez this is his view o' the thing to a T.
In later times we have heard with the old
persistency the same old plea to the voters of the nation to be loyal
to the country, right or wrong. And when we have probed the matter -
nor has much probing been necessary - we have found that we were being
urged to be loyal not to the country, right or wrong, but to some of
President Polk's successors, right or wrong.
Spurious patriotism is most dangerous, however,
when the object of its adoration is the country's flag. There are
patriotic pagans as there are religious pagans. The religious pagan
banishes God from his religion and substitutes ugly idols. The
patriotic pagan banishes principle from his patriotism and substitutes
This tendency to represent principles by symbols
began with the race, and will doubtless persist while the race lasts.
It is not only natural, it is also useful. Realities which might
otherwise be to mortal knowledge mere abstractions, are thereby made
visible and tangible.
Symbolism, however, is not the truest mode of
giving material form to abstract principles. That is supplied by nature
herself. All that we see or feel in nature - sunshine, air, water,
trees, animals; all that art applied to nature produces for the further
or better gratification of our desires - clothing, houses, food,
machinery, books, pictures, statuary; all that we do in satisfaction of
natural impulses - eating, working, playing, sleeping, bathing - are
material expressions of principles; of principles that we may call
moral, mental, abstract or spiritual, as suits us best. What we call
them is of little moment. The vital thing is that they themselves are
They are verities, too, that project themselves
into the realm of matter in the material forms to which we have
referred. Without them, these forms could no more exist than could
reflections in the mirror without objects to be reflected. No mere
accidental analogies are these forms. They express or manifest
different phases of eternal truth, much as fruit expresses or manifests
the vital forces of the tree that bears it. And as the invisible and
intangible forces of the tree become manifest and distinguishable to us
in its fruit, so does invisible and intangible truth become manifest,
distinguishable, apprehensible, in the phenomena of material nature
which it projects. It is because these phenomena are expressions of
principles, because they correspond naturally and necessarily with the
respective truths they interpret, that they offer the truest mode of
making abstract principles visible and tangible.
Nevertheless, artificial and arbitrary symbolism
does serve a great purpose in likewise giving material expression to
abstract principles. The spiritual significance of natural phenomena is
not obvious to all. There is a logical philosophy there which requires
maturity of mind as well as openness of heart for its appreciation; and
when that is lacking, arbitrary symbolism may become a substitute for
natural phenomena as an interpreter of what lies beyond. Arbitrary
symbolism may, therefore, and in fact it does, serve the useful purpose
of stimulating many minds to a recognition of the reality of abstract
truth. It is thus in some sort a primer of spiritual knowledge.
The fraternity of Free Masons offers examples of
the inculcation of moral principles by means of arbitrary symbolism.
Between immortality and the sprig of acacia, between uprightness of
human conduct and the mason's plumb, between morality and the mason's
square, between the principle of human equality and the mason's level,
there is no natural relation. The one does not produce the other. This
is arbitrary symbolism and nothing else. Yet by means of such symbols,
principles that might otherwise seem to be without form and void, are
taught, perceived and felt.
Similarly with religious worship, though in a
broader spiritual field. To inculcate principles, arbitrary symbols are
adopted. Images, called idols, have been set up to represent deity, the
Unknown being thereby brought as it were within the range of human
vision and the possibilities of human touch. Thus God becomes real to
the simplest apprehension. In like manner forms and ceremonies are
established that vital principles may become similarly visible and
tangible. Worshipers kneel in token of spiritual humility. They hold a
cross aloft to symbolize spiritual redemption. They join in the
sacrament of the Lord's supper - that symbol of participation in
spiritual good things, which is typified naturally by natural eating
and drinking. They adopt the symbol of baptism in token of that
cleansing of the spirit by divine truth which is naturally represented
by bathing with water for the cleansing of the body. Church worship,
even the simplest in form, is replete with arbitrary symbolism.
And so is in the sphere of patriotism, where the
great symbol is the flag. A mere piece of colored bunting, a nation's
flag is nevertheless the visible and tangible representation of
national ideals. It is national principles, national traditions,
national honor, national aspirations, materialized. What religious
rites are to the true worshiper, such is the flag to the true patriot.
It is the symbol to his eye of political principles that appeal to his
understanding and enchain his affections.
Rational uses of symbolism need no defense. So
long as the symbol retains its proper place as a symbol, its usefulness
as an implement of religious, moral and patriotic thought and
instruction will hardly be disputed. While the Free Mason finds in the
level a crude representation of God's law of equality, which he adopts
as his own, he is worshiping God. So with the savage who is reminded by
the rude idol before which he bows, of an Intelligence and Beneficence
that he cannot comprehend and cannot otherwise even concentrate his
thoughts upon. He is a worshiper as truly as if he were intelligent
enough to dispense with symbols. It is the same with Christian
churchmen. Their worship, however formal, however conventional, however
symbolic in its ceremonies, is true worship so long as the forms and
ceremonies and symbols are to them but convenient representations of
spiritual truths that can be realized in the material world only by
means of natural correspondences - of natural symbols. In a similar
category, if not the same, is the patriot who reveres the flag of his
country because it symbolizes what to him is sacred in the principles
for which the government of his country stands.
But, when the symbol takes the place of the
principle symbolized, when principles are ignored and there symbols are
revered for themselves alone, then symbols become the detestable
objects of mere fetish worship. What the savage is who makes his idol
his god, precisely that is the Free Mason who prates about the square
and the level regardless of moral obligations and the principle of
equal rights; precisely that is the churchman who clings to forms and
ceremonies regardless of the spiritual principles they are designed to
symbolize; precisely that is the man who cheers the flag of his country
regardless of the cause in which it waves. They are fetish worshipers
And the worst of fetish worship is not merely that
it is personally degrading. The worst of it is that it enables
designing men to marshal fetish-worshiping people against the very
truths their fetish originally symbolized. Thus hypocrites in the
church have been able to turn temples of God into dens of thieves amid
the hosannas of the faithful; and traitors to the commonwealth have won
applause while digging up its foundations and pulling down its ideals.
The fetish of a fetish-worshiping people once secured, all the power of
its superstitious worshipers is secured also.
Popular liberties never have been and never will
be destroyed by the power of usurpers. They are destroyed by the free
consent of the people themselves. When a free people turn from the
principles of liberty to worship its lifeless symbols, they are in
condition to become easy dupes of the first bold leader who has the
shrewdness to conjure them with those symbols. No free people can lose
their liberties while they are jealous of liberty. But the liberties of
the freest people are in danger when they set up symbols of liberty as
fetishes, worshiping the symbol instead of the principle it represents.
This, then, is the difference between true
patriotism and spurious patriotism. Whereas the spurious patriot
worships the flag of his country and is loyal to her officials right or
wrong, the true patriot honors his country's flag as the symbol of her
ideals, and regards her officials as servants who are entitled to
loyalty and respect always when they are right but never when they are
wrong. The soldier may fight for country, though his country be wrong,
yet be a patriot; but the citizen who votes to put his country in the
wrong or it keep there, is a traitor.
The highest and purest patriotism was expressed by
Lowell when he wrote:
I loved my country so only as they
Who love a mother fit to die for may.
I loved her old renown, her stainless fame; -
What better proof than that I loathed her shame?
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