Mystic Chords of Memory

Cultivating America's Unique Form of Patriotism

From the beginning, America's public schools have been charged with instilling in students a love of country. Many believed this emphasis had waned in recent years—partly in response to complaints of "ethnocentrism"; partly because the need for patriotic citizens seemed remote; partly because, in some quarters, in and out of the schools, it just seemed to be out of style—a little crude, a little primitive. As writer George Packer wrote in the New York Times this past fall, "to be stirred by national identity, carry a flag, and feel grateful toward someone in uniform" had come to be, prior to September 11, "a source of embarrassment."

In the wake of September 11, the signs of a reinvigorated patriotism are everywhere—including in the schools. Where the anthem had not been sung, it's being sung; where the Pledge had not been said, it's being said; where Veterans Day had not been celebrated, it was celebrated.

In this article, the author takes us through history to define a uniquely American patriotism—one based not on "my country right or wrong," but on the fact that it is a free country and because, as Lincoln once said of Henry Clay's patriotism, in that freedom can be found "the advancement, prosperity, and glory of human liberty, human right, and human nature."

But, says the author, such a patriotism doesn't come naturally or easily. We must be unabashed, thoughtful, and conscious about nurturing it. This patriotism is cultivated when students learn about the value of the democratic idea, the people and events that shaped this country and its principles, the symbols that trigger love for it, and the sacrifices that have been made by Americans of every generation to ensure its survival, spread, and improvement.



Patriotism. The word itself comes from the Latin patria, meaning country. Patriotism implies a love of country, a readiness to sacrifice for it, perhaps even a willingness to give one's life for it. This was well understood in the countries (or cities) of classical antiquity, where citizens were patriots who loved their country simply because it was their country—because it was "their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers," as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his famous Democracy in America. Citizenship was a kind of filial piety, made possible in part because, in general, they were homogeneous peoples descended from the same ancestors, few in number, and inhabiting an area smaller than the District of Columbia.

Our patriotism is not so simply derived. We are many, not few. And we are no longer, if we ever were, a people descended from the same ancestors. In principle, whereas no stranger could become, say, a Spartan, anybody can become an American, and millions of people from around the world have done so; this helps to explain why that patriotic word "fatherland" has no place in our vocabulary.

But our need of citizens who love this country and who are willing to fight for it is the same.

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No one is born loving his country; such love is not natural. It must be taught or acquired. A person may not even be born loving himself—the authorities differ on this—but soon enough he learns to do so. Unless something is done about it, that self-love can diminish or eliminate his concern for anyone other than himself. The problem is as old as politics, and no country is exempt from having to deal with it. But, for reasons having to do with our unique history and democratic principles, we cannot do so as others have before us—nor would we want to.

Instilling patriotic love in American citizens faces at least four unique challenges: First, our founding ideas were focused on individualism and self-interest, not community. Second, unlike the nations that came before us, there was for us no "land of our fathers," no common bloodline or monarch or mystical God that elicited citizens' loyalty and sacrifice. Rather, and this is the third challenge, our nation was founded on an idea. Never before had a citizenry been asked to sacrifice for an idea. And, fourth, it was a philosophical idea, which presupposes questioning and debate, not blind fealty. From the beginning—and, as we shall see, right up to the present—this idea has been buffeted by contradictory notions.

How could such a nation elicit from its citizens the love of country that would be necessary for it to survive? To paraphrase a line from Abraham Lincoln's 1862 Message to Congress, our case was new, so we had to think anew. As Lincoln learned, the belief in an abstract idea had to be converted to love, to a passion for the "inestimable jewel" that is our country.

At this moment when patriotic spirit is so high, it's worth examining the special challenges inherent in educating American patriots. And, to consider how those before us have addressed these challenges, especially Abraham Lincoln, American patriotism's greatest poet.

A Self-Interested and Individualistic People

According to the motto inscribed on the Great Seal of the United States (and reproduced on every dollar bill), we are a novus ordo seclorum, which is to say, a new order of the ages. We were the first nation to declare our independence by appealing not to the past but to the newly discovered "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," and this had (and has) consequences for patriotism. Whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob imposed duties on men (see Exodus 20:1-17), "Nature's God" endowed all men with rights, private rights. Whereas the God of the Bible commanded all men to love God and their neighbors as themselves (see, for example, Matthew 22:37-40), nature's God created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself. As John Locke, "America's philosopher," said (Treatises II, section 6), man is required to take care of others only "when his own preservation comes not in competition." And so long as he remains in the state of nature, he has the right to do what he is naturally inclined to do, and what he is naturally inclined to do is not to take care of others. Further, as Tom Paine said in 1776, commerce "diminishes" the spirit of patriotism. To say the least, the American steeped in such ideas is not naturally inclined to be a patriotic citizen.

Of course, when properly understood, the Declaration is not merely a catechism of individual rights. In fact, it claims to be the act, not of isolated individuals, but of "one people," an entity in which individuals are bound to each other, contractually if not naturally. Accordingly, it was signed by men who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Nevertheless, it remains true with us that rights are primary and duties are secondary and derivative. This is a first challenge to American patriotism.

Alexis de Tocqueville named another: individualism. "Individualism," he wrote, "disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself." Leaves it to itself and leaves it to take care of itself; an individualist could be the opposite of a patriot.

Designing a public spirit curriculum for such a people would be no easy task—but the challenges are yet more complicated—and historically unique.

A Patriotism of Ideas

In his eulogy for Henry Clay, Lincoln said in 1852, he "loved his country partly because it was his own country but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement...because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity, and glory, of human liberty, human right, and human nature."

Lincoln called the American founders the "patriots of seventy-six." He could not have meant that they were patriots in the traditional sense; they had not fought for "their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers." Like their fathers, they had been born British subjects. He meant that—like Clay—Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Marshall, and the others were "the patriots of seventy-six" because they were devoted to the cause of human liberty, human right, and human nature—to America's cause.

In speaking thus of Henry Clay, Lincoln identified what is, in fact, the unique character of American patriotism: the devotion not only to country (because thanks to the Founders, there was now a country), but also to its principles, which in our case, means the principles set down in 1776. As Thomas Pangle has rightly said, "The declaration by which Americans made themselves independent marked the birth of the first nation in history grounded explicitly not on tradition, or loyalty to tradition, but on an appeal to abstract and universal and philosophical principles of political right." Thus while that famous American sailor Stephen Decatur thought he was being patriotic when, in 1816, he offered his toast, "Our country, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong," he could be accused of being un-American, a term for which there is no counterpart in any other land or language.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave and abolitionist, understood that American patriotism means devotion to a set of principles. In 1847, he said he "had no love for America, as such," but he had a great love of America as those principles intended it to be. To make it so required not only the abolition of slavery and a new constitutional definition respecting citizenship, but, as Abraham Lincoln said at Gettysburg, "a new birth of freedom."

In 1863, based on this idea of America, Douglass called for the enlistment of "colored" troops:

I hold that the Federal Government was never, in its essence, anything but an anti-slavery government. Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in a man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.

By "scaffolding," Douglass meant the three constitutional provisions addressed to the slavery question: the provision in Article I, section 2(3), whereby the Southern states were allowed to count three of their five slaves for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives; the one in Article I, section 9, allowing them, for 20 years, to import more slaves from abroad; and finally, the one in Article 4, section 2(3), providing for the return of fugitive slaves. These concessions to slavery, demanded by the Southern states, were the original price of union, and the Framers did indeed pay that price. To this day, they have been criticized for doing so—but they paid it grudgingly, out of what they thought was necessity. Anyone who says the price was too high is obliged to demonstrate that the lot of the slaves would have been better if the Southern states had been allowed to form (as they did in 1860-61) their own confederation.

Ideas Provoke Debate

This element of American patriotism—its basis in an idea—deserves to be remarked upon: Devotion to a principle requires an understanding of its terms, and, especially in the case of an abstract philosophical principle, that understanding cannot be taken for granted. Most people can enjoy liberty, but not everyone understands its foundation in principle. Further, people can disagree as to its meaning. For example, not everyone agreed with Lincoln that the Kansas-Nebraska Act violated the principles of the Declaration of Independence by allowing the people of the territories to decide whether to come into the Union as free or slave states. Such disagreements led to civil war, with not one but both sides claiming to fight for liberty and self-government.

Furthermore, the effort to understand a principle necessarily requires one to consider, indeed to question, its validity. Did nature's God really endow everyone with the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And does it follow that the purpose of government is "to secure these rights"? The patriots of seventy-six held these to be "self-evident" truths, but King George III held them to be arrogant nonsense; the vice president of the Confederate States of America held them to be self-evident lies.

But, Can an Idea Inspire Patriots?

James Madison was one of the first to note that securing the people's allegiance to an abstract idea could be problematic. He wished that reason alone would secure citizens' attachment to the new government. But that, he said, "is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato." In reality, the government would need people's emotional attachment, as well.

Lincoln reached the same conclusion. As civil war loomed, he said there was a question as to whether our political institutions could survive or, to use his term, "be perpetuated." The principles on which they rested had the support of "the patriots of seventy-six," men capable of understanding the "Laws of Nature and of Nature's God." But for the people generally, Lincoln thought, their attachment to our institutions would have to be passionate, not rational. As we shall see, he felt that passion would best flow from an understanding and appreciation of America's ideas.

For more than 50 years, Lincoln said, the American people's love of country and its institutions was inseparable from their hatred of Britain. So long as the memory of the Revolutionary War was fresh in their minds, "the deep-rooted principles of hate and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation." And thus, Lincoln concludes, "from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of causes—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty."

But that would change, Lincoln said, as the memory of the Revolution faded. For a while—for a generation—that memory was kept alive because in every family there was to be found "in the form of a father, husband, son, or a brother, a living history of the revolution, a history bearing the indubitable testimonies of its own authenticity, in the limbs mangled, in the scars of wounds received, in the midst of the scenes related." But those histories are gone, he said, and can no longer be read. "They were a fortress of strength, but what invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done: the leveling of its walls."

Thus, he believed that his task, or, as he put it, the task of "our Washington," was to make freedom an object of the American people's passions or, more precisely, an object of our love. For love is a passion, not a judgment arrived at by a process of ratiocination. Thus, in August 1864, speaking to an Ohio regiment being disbanded and returning home, he used the ideas of the past to stoke that passion:

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 today, 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.... 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 [that] the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthright—not only for one, but for two or three years. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.

He further inspired that passion by recalling the Founders and their commitment. He closed his First Inaugural (which was mostly given over to an appeal to the Southern states not to secede from the Union), with this statement:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion [note again this word] may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.

But Lincoln had told us in an earlier speech to the Young Men's Lyceum that memories, even those stretching from the graves of patriots, grow cold as they grow old, and will in time fade altogether—unless by means of words so compelling and memorable, they could be made an imperishable part of the nation. The Civil War, with its fresh patriots' graves, provided an occasion for such rhetoric.

At Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered the most beautiful speech in the English language—generations of schoolchildren used to commit it to memory—a speech of 272 words, delivered on a battlefield. "We are met on a great battlefield," he said, to dedicate a cemetery filled with the graves of patriots:

It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What Lincoln did at Gettysburg was to create new mystic chords, stretching from a new battlefield and new graves, to our hearts and hearthstones, all over this broad land, South as well as North, reminding us of the cause written in our book, the Declaration of Independence. His words touch or sound those chords in a way that no American, at least no American of my generation, can forget. He used the occasion of the war to cause us to love the Union as he and Henry Clay loved it, because of what it stood for. Love and rational judgment are not incompatible or irreconcilable, but they are different.

Thus is American patriotism complicated. It must push against the self-interest and individualism upon which the country was founded. It must convert an idea to a conviction, to a passion, while respecting it as an idea. But it's more complicated still.

Ideas Get Buffeted

Like all ideas, the idea that fundamentally underlies American patriotism—"that all men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights"—is subject, today as always, to argument. Today, American educators—who were placed on the frontline of educating patriots by Thomas Jefferson—face arguments never imagined by the Founders.

Thomas Jefferson believed that war brings out the best in a people, but, it is not "the best engine for us to resort to." Other "engines" had to be found for fostering those habits and actions that he held to be the foundation of republican government. He offered a host of proposals, including those related to education: the schools, at every level, were to play an important role in instilling those virtuous habits and transmitting them from one generation to the next.

Not only did he expect schools to provide instruction in Greek, Latin, geography, the higher branches of numerical arithmetic, and Grecian, Roman, and American history, but, without employing religion for the purpose, he expected them to instill "the first elements of morality" into children's minds. He believed it essential that children be taught to love their country, and he further believed this country especially deserved to be loved, because it was good or just. This assumes—and in 1776 we held it to be a fact—that there are standards by which countries are to be judged.

But that idea has been challenged in recent years, as the open preference for liberal democratic principles has been derided as "ethnocentric." An egregious example of this was a teaching guide that went so far as to ensure that all regimes would be seen in the same light, that it accorded equal significance to the democratic rights of freedom of speech, the right to vote, and the guarantee of due process on the one hand and to what was called the "right" to take vacations on the other—despite the fact that under the regimes that espoused such economic rights as "vacations," there were no "rights" at all, only privileges that the government could give and take away at will.

If taken seriously, such extreme cultural or political relativism makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the schools to do what they have traditionally been expected to do, namely, to play a major role in the making of public-spirited citizens. How can the schools teach American students to love their country and be prepared to make sacrifices for it, when telling them that its form of government—based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence—is no better than one that denies basic rights to its citizens? The founders could speak of "civilized nations," as opposed to "savage tribes" and "barbarians," and did so because they thought the distinction important (see Federalist 10, 24, 41). But if that distinction is denied, teachers could speak only of cultural differences, not of distinctions implying a judgment. In this new moral order, tolerance—blind tolerance—is the virtue taught, and "judgmentalism" is the vice.

We can see how this extreme reticence to offer judgments has filtered even into the well-meaning teaching guides published to help teachers address the events of September 11. In guide after guide, explicit judgment about the aims and character of the terrorists is avoided and teachers are beseeched to help students "understand all opposing perspectives"; to recognize that "One person's terrorist is another person's freedom fighter"; and to help students who are involved in "gun play" and "bad guy play" shift from "one-dimensional understanding to an expanded sense of bad guys as fully human people."

Of course we want students to be familiar with the perspective that drives our adversaries. And we want students who can raise questions. But we also want students—and citizens—who are prepared to make judgments about the worthiness of various regimes and the ideas that animate them, who can make distinctions between freedom-fighters and terrorists based on the methods used and the ends that are being fought for, who are happy to stand tall in defense of the ideas enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and for which we have all fought on many fronts ever since.

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There is another idea at work against American patriotism. In her essay "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism," Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, criticized "patriotic pride" as "both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve." "Justice and equality," she says, would be better served by persons "whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings." Peoples differ, she admits, but they share "common aims, aspirations, and values." National boundaries are not only artificial, she says, but arbitrary barriers that blind us to our common humanity. Thus, instead of being taught that "they are, above all, citizens of the United States," students should be taught that "they are above all, citizens of a world of human beings."

If there was, in fact, a worldwide community animated and governed by liberal notions of justice and equality, this might be a point worth arguing. If American patriotism did, in fact, blind Americans to the humanity of non-Americans, it might be a point worth arguing. But neither is the case. The world community consists of too many countries that torture, jail, enslave, and murder their citizens, particularly those who don't share the race, ethnicity, class, or faith of their rulers. Insofar as "community" implies shared values, we want no part of such a community.

More importantly, citizens of the United States have no trouble whatsoever in regarding the victims of these regimes as members of "our common humanity" and worthy of our compassion. When, for example, Chinese students took to Tiananmen Square, we could see immediately that they shared our "aims, aspirations, and values." Just as immediately, we could see the Chinese government did not. We could see these things precisely because, as Americans, we believe that all men, whether or not they are our fellow citizens, are endowed with certain unalienable rights.

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In 1776, we declared our right to form a new nation by appealing to the principle of unalienable rights. Because we were the first to do so, it fell to us to be its champion, first by setting an example—Lincoln was ever mindful of this—and subsequently by defending it against their latter-day enemies, the Nazis and fascists in World War II and the communists in the Cold War. Like it or not (and it is something of a burden), our lot is to be the one country essential to the survival and spread of democratic ideas and government—the one country with the power to defend liberal democracy against its enemies, the model as well as the arsenal of democracy. This ought to be acknowledged, beginning in our schools and universities, for it is only then that we can come to accept the responsibilities attending it. We owe it to our friends, as well as our ourselves, to be patriotic.

The terrorists understand this, which is why they hate us (especially us) and want to destroy us. Our existence is a threat to them precisely because it gives hope to the oppressed people of the wretched and undemocratic lands from which they come. They hate us because we are a free country, a country that guarantees freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of enterprise, and the freedom that best distinguishes us from the countries harboring the terrorists—freedom of conscience. This country is, as Lincoln said it was, "the last, best hope of earth."

Since then, some eyes have opened, as Jefferson once predicted, to the universal rights of man, but by no means all of them. A part of the world today is what it was in 1945, when American soldiers came upon the concentration and death camps of Nazi Germany. Looking with horror at one of these camps, General Eisenhower was moved to say,

I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place. We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.

The Chords Gain a New Note

On September 11, a new note was added to the mystic chords of America's memory, and patriotism burst out. Millions of Americans are flying their flags from their front porches and balconies, on their automobiles and the antennas of battered pickup trucks (even wearing it on their lapels). Flying the flag—the people seemed to know this intuitively—is the readiest way to demonstrate their love of country and their pride in being Americans.

As noted in the beginning, patriotism is the opposite of selfish; it is love of community. Told it was in short supply, Americans rushed to give their blood and to the scene of devastation in New York with food, blankets, masks of some sort, whatever they thought was needed. They grieved for those who had lost their lives, and some of them prayed for the bereaved left behind: the heroic police and firefighters, and especially, because it was not their job to do so, those passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 who gave their lives to prevent the plane from going on to Washington, D.C., to destroy the White House or, worse, the citadel of our representative democracy, the Capitol on the Hill. And for the relief of those left behind, Americans donated the prodigious sum of more that $1.3 billion. It was as if they remembered what the Apostle Paul said in his Epistle to the Romans, "we are members one of another."

They had reason to believe this. The terrorists did not discriminate; they killed us all: black, white, and every shade between; rich and poor, investment bankers and blue-collar police and firefighters; old and young; liberals and conservatives; and Christian, Jew, Muslim, and "infidel." Some were foreigners, as we soon learned, but all the others were Americans—unhyphenated Americans—fellow citizens, if not personal friends or immediate neighbors.

There was no more talk of us and them, as in our usual political discourse; the only "them" were the terrorists. They surely did not intend it—and, I trust, will come to regret it—but, by attacking us intending to destroy us, they launched an unprecedented swell of patriotic sentiment among us.

Especially after the events of September 11, it is appropriate that schoolchildren be taught the history of this country—and not that all cultures are equal, not that the greatest sin is to be judgmental, and not that previous flaws and failures of American democracy in practice render the ideas themselves as anything less than, as Lincoln said, setting up a "standard maxim for free society...revered by all; constantly looked to...and thereby...augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere."

Educating Patriots

I've been asked if I believe that war is necessary to make us patriots. The answer I give is a qualified "no," so long as we remember past wars. Our wars have often been fought because big ideas were at stake. And so, they remind us of our "birthright," of the ideas that constitute it and of the price that has been paid for them.

To help us remember, we have a Memorial Day (Decoration Day, when I was young), a Flag Day, and the Lincoln, Vietnam, Korean, and (eventually) World War II memorials. To the same end, we have national cemeteries filled with the graves of patriots, and a national anthem composed during, and reminding us of, a long-past war. This nation was born in an earlier war, and Abraham Lincoln referred to the men who fought it as "the patriots of seventy-six." Born British subjects, and living in 13 separate British colonies, we became "one people" in 1776; we said so in our Declaration of Independence. The Civil War was the deadliest of our wars, but it was also the most necessary: at stake was the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. In World War II, we learned that the survival of democracy depended on the might and leadership of our nation. All of these stories, commemorated in monuments and memorials, are the nation's stories, and telling them should be the nation's business; it should be an important part of the civics curriculum in our schools.

Students should also—this is surely the time for it—be encouraged to read political biographies, of Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Douglass, and especially of Lincoln; then having acquired a taste for biographies, go on as adults to read those of Webster, Clay, and Calhoun; of Roosevelt and Wilson; of Truman and the second Roosevelt.

As General Eisenhower understood, it's also important for students to understand what this country is against, which is just another way of saying students should well understand what's at stake in the survival and spread of free societies.

Such an education will permit the next generation to hear the mystic chords of memory that Lincoln knew could bind our country.


There is no denying that patriotism can be a problem; it can be misguided or a blind nationalism. Timothy McVeigh certainly demonstrated that. This is why Aristotle refused to number it among the virtues along with justice, friendship, and courage, for example. But our patriotism is neither misguided or blind, nor is it a Spartan "my country right or wrong" patriotism. Ours is the kind best described by Lincoln in his eulogy for Henry Clay. The American patriot is devoted to his country, of course, but he is also devoted to universal principles respecting the rights of man.

The twofold character of American patriotism is evident in our Pledge of Allegiance. We pledge allegiance to "the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands." The flag, and the Republic.

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The flag carried by the Contintental Army in January 1776 had 13 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 means of promoting it.

It is our emotions, more than our rational faculties, that are triggered by the sight of the flag, not when it is used (or abused) for commercial purposes, but when it is waved and flown on Flag Day and the Fourth of July and displayed at the various war memorials or on the Mall in Washington, D.C. Or, for that matter, displayed in towns and cities around the country and on the battlefields at Bull Run, Antietam, and Gettysburg, and at the cemeteries where those who fought and died are buried—not only at Arlington and Gettysburg, but in the faraway places we sometimes visit, among them Manila in the Philippines, Cambridge in England, Chateau-Thierry in the north of France, and perhaps, most famously, above Omaha Beach in Normandy. The sight of it, especially in these places, evokes memories of past battles and of those who fought them, and to whom we are indebted.

They willingly put their lives at risk for the country and its principles. We know little about them, save for the fact that they must have wanted the country to endure. (Why else would they have fought for it?) But to know that they wanted the country to endure is to know something else about them; in fact, it is to know something of importance about them: that they felt themselves obligated to their forefathers and their posterity, the forebearers because, from them, they had inherited a country worth fighting and dying for, and their posterity because, being related to them—by nationality if not by blood—they were anxious that they, too, might enjoy its many benefits. They served our country and were the better for it; by honoring them, as we do, we pay a service of our own and are the better for it. I can make this point with an analogy: Not every American can be a Lincoln, but all Americans are made better by reading his words and coming to love him and the cause for which he gave his life.

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The Republic, in turn, stands not only for our country but for those principles, the principles expressed by Henry Clay, and before him by "the patriots of seventy-six"—namely, that all men, not just Americans, are endowed by their Creator with certain "unalienable rights" and that government is instituted "to secure these rights." Those who feel awkward about flag-waving should keep in mind that a symbol is only as noble, or evil, as the object or idea it symbolizes. The fact that Nazis and others have used their symbols to promote heinous acts shouldn't make us reticent about our own symbols.

And so, as Jefferson said, it falls to teachers—though not only to teachers—to cultivate students' patriotic feeling. And that means passion and love. It means enabling them to hear the mystic chords of memory that trigger an emotional response to the flag. But in the American context, that love grows from understanding the ideas, including knowing—as Henry Clay, Douglass, and Lincoln did—that American patriotism includes working to realize in practice the ideas of our founding. American patriotism is both head and heart. Teachers must help cultivate both. Perhaps then, all our citizens—young and old—can learn to appreciate the birthright Lincoln spoke of, and to understand better what he meant by this "inestimable jewel."


Walter Berns is a professor emeritus of government at Georgetown University and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Berns is the author of numerous articles on American government and politics in professional and popular journals. His books include Taking the Constitution Seriously, In Defense of Liberal Democracy, and The First Amendment and the Future of American Democracy. His most recent book is Making Patriots, on which this article is based.


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