The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789

The Meaning of Patriotism in 1789

If you look at recent academic discussions about the good and bad energies brought into play by patriotism, you are struck by a certain elusiveness regarding the commitment of the commentators. Patriotism, the love of our country, is sometimes presented as a profound requirement of human nature; yet it is admitted that some people are more urgently moved by patriotism than others, and that the feeling is acquired and not innate. More often, patriotism is treated as a contingent good. The analogy is with religious belief. It is said that good people do not need to believe in God, but most people cherish such a belief, and it acts as a restraint on the viciousness of people who are not good, so we ought not to speak against religion. Indeed, we ought to encourage it as an engine of moral unification and restraint.

So too with the love of one’s country. It is often defended or deferred to by scholars as a contingent good, beneficial to many people and not to be shunned by anyone who would preserve the reputation of a reliable neighbor. Richard Rorty argued in Achieving Our Country that a pragmatic liberalism in America ought to rely on patriotic sentiments to encourage Americans to live up to our ideals. Michael Kazin, in a recent essay in the New Republic, “Stuff of Legend,” suggested that the luck that made America exceptional could be invoked by Barack Obama for a higher “exceptionalism” to spur generous action toward people less lucky than ourselves. The truth is that a great many famous evocations of patriotic sentiment have been tactical in a similar sense. George Kateb, in “Is Patriotism a Mistake?,” speculated that Lincoln in the Civil War had used the word “Union” in preference to “emancipation” because, though the cause he cared for was the removal of slavery, he knew that masses of people would only fight for the Union. There is considerable evidence to support that surmise.

At an outer edge of the consensus, one finds the communitarian idea that patriotism is a proof of our social nature; that people who lack such feeling or decline to display it are thin-blooded in some way, or missing an essential element of gregarious virtue and decency. George Orwell in his remarkable essay “Notes on Nationalism” tried to enforce a distinction between patriotism, the attachment to a particular way of life that “one believes to be the best in the world,” and nationalism, which he supposed “inseparable from the desire for power.” Orwell’s was a brave attempt but I doubt that the distinction can be maintained. What I call my patriotism, someone else will unmask as nationalism, and vice versa. The broad terms of this familiar discussion seem not to have changed much since 1789 and 1790, the years of publication of the two works with which I will be concerned.

WHEN, IN spring and summer of 1789, the political protests and popular disorder in France began to be called a revolution...


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