Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Thoughts on Patriotism

by Jeff Polet

On this 247th birthday celebration of our nation, we might be forgiven if we indulge the impulse to feel good about ourselves. A genuine patriotism should reveal both affection and gratitude, as well as self-correction. Like a family, those who belong to a nation are all-too-aware of its flaws, and don’t particularly enjoy outsiders harping on them, but they are also grateful for the many blessings that flow from membership.

Many of our cultured critics would treat America as if it were nothing but a dysfunctional family. Scarred by the past, they prattle ceaselessly about what mom and dad did wrong. They would have the listener believe that his or her particular set of parents were uniquely and thoroughly horrible (watch Season 2 episode 6 of The Bear for a gripping example). Having grown up in a reasonably healthy household myself I find it hard to relate to those who grew up in awful ones, and harder still to relate to those who have made a career over relitigating their upbringing.

Such, in any case, is not our fate as Americans. The word “patriot” comes from the same root word as “father.” Like any patrimony, ours is not perfect. Like any decent father, I can look back at the rearing of my own children and identify mistakes and hold regrets and, in some instances, apologize for them, such apologies being an invitation to reconciliation and healing. I hope that my children judge me mercifully, but also don’t dwell too much on my mistakes and so lose sight of the things I did well.

We seem to be permitted no such balanced views of our collective patrimony. We are tossed between the crags of a decreasing number of “my country, love it or leave it” jingoists and an increasing number of angry and defiant critics, whose very public self-flagellations are such an obvious display of self-hatred they would make Peter Damian blush. At least the medieval monks didn’t hand out whips to innocent bystanders and insist they do the same. Somewhere between those two crags is the patriotic disposition for which I am advocating: a respect and appreciation for the great accomplishments of those who went before us and made so much of what is good in our lives possible; and an acknowledgement of their sins, not to bludgeon them with our own self-righteousness, but to teach us humility, understanding, and compassion.

Dr. Johnson uttered the now-famous expression that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He did not mean by this that all patriots are scoundrels; rather, he meant that people who are scoundrels will, after exhausting all other venues for credibility, finally wrap themselves in a flag. Dr. Johnson rightly believed in a healthy respect and appreciation for one’s patrimony. Machiavelli reminded us that a man will sooner forget the death of his father than the loss of his patrimony.

American patriotism has always been connected to its sense of possibility. Attenuated though they may be in some quarters, the can-do attitude, the relentless energy, the cockeyed optimism, the belief in the American dream, the embrace of the “bourgeois values” of hard work and thrift, are still alive and well. We still believe that “every man is a king” in his own domain.

American patriotism is about more than loving America simply because you happened to be born here. Indeed, part of what makes America such an exciting player on the stage of world history has been the fact that many people not born here often have a deeper love of it than those who were. Gerald Ford, Jr. was the adopted son of Gerald Ford, Sr., and the reader of Ford’s biography will have no doubt as to the deep affection and respect – and gratitude – he had toward his adoptive father.

There is much talk about America’s immigration problem, but people often miss the salient fact that we have a problem because so many people are less tied to the place of their birth than they are to the promise of American life. They would rather live in the house of Gerald Ford, Sr. than that of Leslie King, Sr. (Ford’s birth father). But then, Americans have never been comfortable living with Kings.

Immigrants seek asylum in this country because they know America has discovered the secret sauce – not a magic elixir that promises political perfection, but a set of ideas and arrangements that lead to a tolerably free and fair order. The promise of American life has always been and still remains that we are a place where you can be given a fair chance in life; that no man was born to master another or be mastered by another; that you can reap the rewards of hard work and daring and initiative; that a man never falls so far that he can’t be given both a hand-up and a second chance; that you may “sit in the shade of your own fig tree and enjoy the fruit of your own vine, and none shall make you afraid” (the most quoted Scripture verse from the colonial era, and an indicator that it’s in our DNA that we want to be left alone in peace and will extend that same courtesy to others); that you can better your condition and that of your progeny; and that we can unify in spite of our differences because of our mutual commitment to a common set of ideas and principles.

Without the latter, the American project would soon fall apart. On his visit to America, the great English writer G.K. Chesterton observed that “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.” This audacious sense of possibility is what produces the energy that lights the horizon of so many dark places. If sometimes that light blinds us with its brilliance, it is not for that any less illuminating.

Chesterton also observed that

the American is fundamentally different. To him the enthusiasm itself is meritorious. To him the excitement itself is dignified. He counts it a part of his manhood to fast or fight or rise from a bed of sickness for something, or possibly for anything. His ideal is not to be a lock that only a worthy key can open, but a 'live wire' that anything can touch or anybody can use. In a word, there is a difference in the very definition of virility and therefore of virtue. A live wire is not only active, it is also sensitive. Thus sensibility becomes actually a part of virility. … American energy is not a soulless machine; for it is the whole point that he puts his soul into it. It is a very small box for so big a thing; but it is not an empty box. But the point is that he is not only proud of his energy, he is proud of his excitement. He is not ashamed of his emotion, of the fire or even the tear in his manly eye, when he tells you that the great wheel of his machine breaks four billion butterflies an hour.

Chesterton, like Tocqueville, saw America with the unjaundiced and appreciative eye of the outsider. They both understood that individual dignity was somehow bound up with our energy. Our foreign visitors often saw America as childlike, but in the best sense that it’s full of wonder and curiosity and possibility and, yes, energy, all of which contrasted with the old and tired and jaded countries of their birth. It’s little wonder, then, that in their childlike enthusiasm Americans too often believe that the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Creeds exist in part to be taught. But no one can teach well what they don’t believe in themselves, and this is why the current state of teaching America to Americans is both cynical and hypocritical. We have a generation of teachers who keep sawing away at the branches on which they sit. Understanding themselves as citizens of the world narrows rather than broadens their focus. Their cosmopolitanism draws them to the outside, and thus leaves them fundamentally without a home. They’re the ungrateful children who leave home and look back at it with sneering contempt for its parochialism and narrowness and unenlightened habits and customs, never to realize it was the only place where they were seen and known and accepted and loved.

We should regard the 4th of July as a family reunion. Not the dysfunctional type that dysfunctional people like to talk about, but the ones shared by most people. They will include a re-enacting of familial rituals; a telling of the stories from the past that amuse and inspire; an occasional “airing of grievances”; a bearing of one another in all our complexity and differences, a genuine interaction with mankind in its full variety; remembering and celebrating our ancestors; and an expression of gratitude for the bounty for which we are both responsible and not responsible. Without that sense of gratitude, the family is little better than a gang of thieves. Let the “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” eat at the feast while contributing nothing to it, but never let them invoke the blessing.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the line that divides a rightful pride in one’s country from an arrogant pride?
  2. Have the animating ideas of American life changed over time? Does freedom mean to us what it once did?
  3. Why is gratitude so important, and how can it be cultivated?

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