What is Patriotism?

I love to study U.S. History. It is a topic which yields profound insights into the human character – both noble and terrible. The Bill of Rights is a fantastic document, and I’ve been awestruck when I’ve stood in Congress Hall where those amendments were both debated and voted upon. At the same time the hypocrisy of the Constitution, which works from the assumption that freedom is humanity’s natural state, can’t be ignored. The natural state of enslaved Africans was being utterly, and uncomfortably, ignored – which only served to accelerate the popular belief that Africans weren’t quite as human as white Europeans. After all, if a culture is going to ignore its own declared principals, there has to be some justification to keep empowered people feeling secure in themselves.

Nowadays, though, most people don’t get the concept of the Constitution in the first place. The Constitution grants us nothing. The freedoms it espouses, and the Bill of Rights which lists specific freedoms, are assumed to be pre-existent. They are the natural state of humanity, and only a tyrant would seek to take them away 1. The way people people talk nowadays about the Constitution granting us freedoms would have made people do a double-take in the 18th Century. Because, again, only tyrants felt they could grant freedoms to people. The folks who founded this Republic would hate the idea of the Constitution granting freedoms because it also meant that the Constitution could take them away. Madison even fought against a Bill of Rights because he didn’t want to give the impression that the Constitution bestowed anything 2. The fact that the rights which are guaranteed to be protected in the Constitution describe the natural state of humanity is why, to this day, anyone on soil where the Constitution is in effect has the same legal rights as a citizen.

And this brings us to Patriotism. What is it? Well, in the context of the Revolutionary Era, it described someone who defended the “natural rights” of their fellow man 3 against tyranny. In the immediate context this meant standing up to Parliament and King George, both of whom were trying to take away their natural freedoms and make them slaves 4. Some of the most well-known patriots of the era, such at the Marquis de Lafayette, weren’t actually Americans, they were rather allied to the cause 5.

Nowadays the language of Patriotism has come to be equated with flag waving, nativism, and militaristic spectacles. It’s marked by uproars over the national anthem, the perceived audacity that “illegals” would dare to claim they have rights, and the language of “us versus them.” But this isn’t patriotism, it’s nationalism. The former was, albeit with huge and glaring blind spots, a declaration that the story of freedom is the true story of all humanity. The latter is a cancer which erodes the story down until nothing is left but, “This is ours, go to hell.” The two have been conflated before in our history. It’s never ended well.

In reality, all those who resist tyranny are patriots. This includes folks who are protesting the use of eminent domain for oil pipelines, the people blocking the entrances to ICE facilities where asylum-seekers are being denied Constitutional protections, Black Lives Matter activists who want their lopsided experience with power to be addressed, hunters who are tired of being told they aren’t allowed to practice their sport, and gun control activists who want to see people terrorized by gun violence to enjoy the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” the Declaration of Independence describes. Real patriotism is messy, and in that mess a beauty can be found.

When patriotism becomes clean and tidy, on the other hand, bad things happen.

Let’s let it remain a glorious mess.


  1. Which is yet another rationale for treating enslaved Africans as “non-people.” It blew up our own narrative. 
  2. In the end he saw that not having one would keep the Constitution from being ratified, so he acquiesced. 
  3. And, yah, it was definitely “men.” Ladies didn’t much count as true persons at that point in history. 
  4. Some of the more difficult passages from the era to read as a Twenty-first Century American actually use enslaved Africans as examples of what would happen to them should they not resist. The sheer cynicism of it is tough to swallow, but it was the world in which they lived – people who were conquered deserved to have their freedoms taken. This is also why slavery language appears in the poem “The Defense of Fort McHenry.” 
  5. Though Lafayette would come to see himself as an American, and described himself as such many years later. 

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