Sacrificing for better angels

Making Patriots

May 3, 2002

On the morning of September 14 2001, in the unrivalled grandeur and quiet majesty of St Paul's Cathedral, Britain paused to remember those whose lives had been lost three days before in New York, Washington and in a lonely and isolated field in rural Pennsylvania. In the presence of Her Majesty the Queen, the prime minister and the American ambassador, the service of remembrance was a fitting tribute; Americans in Britain, from every walk of life, swelled the ranks of the great and the good who had come to pray and to mourn.

At the conclusion of the service, after the hymns and national anthems had been sung, after the scriptures had been read, a thousand voices were raised in singing the ever-stirring "Battle Hymn of the Republic". As those inside St Paul's filed out into the sunshine, they beheld a crowd of thousands packing every street that trails off from the churchyard and Paternoster Square; all were singing Julia Ward Howe's hymn of divine vengeance penned so long ago; a single American flag was held solemnly aloft. Not a dry eye was to be seen. Through the glimmer of tears, there could have been no American who did not understand the meaning of patriotism at that moment as they heard those refrains of "Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!" and watched Old Glory wave.

One knew immediately - one felt immediately - what Abraham Lincoln had meant when, as the clouds of disunion and civil war gathered, he called on his fellow citizens in his first inaugural address to listen to "the better angels of (their) nature" and to recall those "mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot's grave, to every living heart and hearthstone across this broad land". For it is in those "mystic chords of memory" that American patriotism has its roots and from which it draws its power.

That patriotism was unleashed to a degree not seen for generations by the barbarity of September 11 2001. The people of the US have come together, across races and creeds, ideologies and parties, to rise to the challenge posed by the attacks on their homeland. Yet the passion is not simply to defend the homeland; it is deeper than that. It is, rather, to defend what most Americans understand to be their way of life, their commitment to the principles of freedom and equality that they consider not only their birthright but also the birthright of all mankind.

It is this commitment to principles deemed universal that renders American patriotism unique. The complexities of this brand of patriotism, what might be called a philosophical patriotism, are the subject of Walter Berns's small and engaging essay Making Patriots - an eloquent political exposition of what makes Americans tick (written before the events of September 2001). But this book is more than simply explanatory; it is also a call for a restoration of a certain kind of public education that will inculcate in each citizen an abiding love of country and a willingness to sacrifice personal interest for the greater public good. As Berns makes clear, the inculcation of such a willingness among self-interested individuals in a liberal democracy is easier said than done.

The basis of what G. K. Chesterton called the American "creed" is the Declaration of Independence , a document that is, for Berns, the source of the promise and the problems of American patriotism. The Declaration has always been understood as more than just an ordinary state paper. Lincoln, for one, praised Jefferson who, he said, "in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times". That abstract truth, of course, was the idea that all men are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is precisely this idea of man's natural equality that simultaneously gives rise to America's fundamental political creed and makes the possibility of patriotism so uncertain.

The political science of the Declaration was largely that of John Locke, who has been called "America's philosopher". Locke's teachings, as adopted by the early Americans, set loose the notion of man's radical individualism, the belief that in his natural state there is no one to whom any man is beholden. Legitimate government is a matter of consent, pure and simple. In this scheme, rights are emphasised at the expense of duties; men are much more inclined to turn inward towards home and hearth and away from public affairs. Whereas in places such as ancient Sparta, Berns argues, patriotism was not an option but a given fact, in the US it is very much an option.

The founders of the American republic were fully aware of this problem, being students of Montesquieu. They knew, as he had taught in The Spirit of the Laws , that in a republic instilling a love of country had to be "the principal business of education". Locke, of course, also understood this; he wrote tracts on education with an eye towards forming good citizens. They all knew, as Berns points out, that "no one is born loving his country", that such a patriotic attachment "has to be somehow taught or acquired."

Until relatively recently, public education fulfilled this necessary role. From the earliest years of the nation, writers such as Noah Webster in the 18th century in his An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking , and William H. McGuffey (a professor of moral philosophy at Jefferson's University of Virginia) in the 19th century in his famous Eclectic Readers sought to prepare collections of materials for the education of the young. Their books presented edifying stories of heroes, famous speeches, tales of the American revolution and lessons on the Bible to help the young to form codes of personal and public morality in order to be good, patriotic citizens. What was read was not a matter of indifference. Those earlier generations of Americans knew, as Richard Weaver would later put it, that ideas do indeed have consequences. But over time, in Berns's view, the moral education necessary to produce patriots has weakened in the US.

This weakening has come in part, Berns suggests, through a series of decisions by the Supreme Court of the United States. Beyond mere adjudication, the court serves as something of a "republican schoolmaster" and, in Berns's view, there have been some pretty shoddy lessons taught. By expelling religion from the public schools; by exaggerating the idea of freedom of speech and press into something called "freedom of expression", in which no opinion or action is considered any better than any other; and by diminishing the American flag from an object of public veneration to little more than a scrap of cloth to be burned or tampered with as anyone sees fit (as a matter of their "freedom of expression"), the Supreme Court has kicked the constitutional supports out from under moral education in the US. All this has been exacerbated, according to Berns, by the rise of a politically correct multiculturalism that forbids anyone to suggest that one culture or nation is preferable to any other. But as he argues, American patriotism depends on moral education and the ability to embrace the American political order as the best - one worth dying for, if needs be.

Making Patriots is not so much a book about public policy as it is a primer for statesmen. Like Webster and McGuffey before him, Berns endeavours to make the case for why Americans should be patriots by presenting lessons from the greatest figures of American history such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Frederick Douglass. But the real hero of the story presented here is Lincoln, whom Berns describes as "patriotism's poet". This simple country boy who educated himself with Shakespeare and the Bible understood the exceptionalism of his nation and the need to educate his fellow citizens as to why it was so exceptional. A public man who took his moral and political bearings from Jefferson's Declaration , Lincoln knew it was exactly the commitment to those universal principles - especially the natural equality of all men - that made American patriotism possible. This was, after all, not just a nation founded on self-interest; it was a community knitted together by common beliefs. And it was by his appeal to those "better angels of (their) nature" that he was able to inspire his fellow citizens to preserve the union on which the realisation of those fundamental principles depended.

In one of his earliest speeches, a lecture before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, in 1838, Lincoln expressed the sentiments that give substance to Berns's logic of patriotism. Speaking on the subject of "the perpetuation of our political institutions", the future president implored his audience to dedicate themselves to encouraging "a reverence for the constitution and laws". Such a reverence, he insisted, had to become "the political religion of the nation", a public faith in which citizens of every description could "sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars". Then, and only then, would the nation be secure and its principles perpetuated. In Berns's view, Lincoln is the model for our morally muddled times.

Given the war on terrorism and all that it will entail in the years ahead, it would be hard to think of a more timely book than Making Patriots . But this was not a quick reaction to the devastation of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, or the greatness of spirit of those who thwarted their captors over a field in Pennsylvania. It had been developing for a long time before that. Its roots reach back to Berns's first book, Freedom, Virtue and the First Amendment (1957), and in one way or another is a topic that has been touched on in most of his other works, such as For Capital Punishment (1976) and Taking the Constitution Seriously (1987). The most important question for Berns has been, what does it take for a liberal democracy such as the US to sustain itself? The answer he gives here is that it takes a patriotism and public-spiritedness that simply cannot be left to chance.

Gary McDowell is director, Institute of US Studies, University of London.

Making Patriots

Author - Walter Berns
ISBN - 0 226 04437 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £13.00
Pages - 150

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