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This Week in 'Nation' History: The Fourth of July and the Meaning of Patriotism | The Nation

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Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in 'Nation' History: The Fourth of July and the Meaning of Patriotism

The first issue of The Nation, dated July 6, 1865, included an editorial titled “The Great Festival,” which noted that in the eighty-nine years Americans had been celebrating Independence Day on the Fourth of July, “never before have we had such cause of rejoicing.” The Civil War had ended less than three months earlier, and the editors and founders of The Nation—abolitionists and other radicals based largely in New York and Boston—were close to ecstatic about the possibility of finally fulfilling the country’s early promises:

It is not simply the birth of the nation which we now commemorate, but its regeneration…We celebrate not only the close of a long and bloody civil war, but the close of the contest which preceded and led to it, that, as it was well called, “irrepressible conflict,” which for half a century absorbed all the intellect of the country, perverted its understanding, corrupted its morals, and employed most of its moral and mental energy, either in the attack or defence, in the nineteenth century of the Christian era, of one of the worst forms of barbarism;—a conflict, too, which, during the last twenty years, began to exercise a paralyzing influence on industry and to poison social intercourse…We celebrate, in short, not simply the national independence, or the return of peace, but the close of the agitation about slavery, and the extinction of slavery itself. How tremendous an influence this fact is likely to have on our moral and intellectual progress, we can now only conjecture.

“It is not simply the triumph of American democracy that we rejoice over,” they concluded, “but the triumph of democratic principles everywhere.”

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Another interesting piece related to Independence Day appeared in 1925. An editorial titled “Degrading the Fourth of July” took issue with the attempt by President Calvin Coolidge to establish a “national mobilization day” on July 4 to test the nation’s preparedness for war. Commending Coolidge’s rejection of the army’s first choice for the mobilization test day, November 11—pointing out the hypocrisy of transforming into a preparation for future wars the anniversary of the end of “the war to end all wars”—The Nation argued that the values of the mobilization day were equally inappropriate for Independence Day.

Why pick upon the Fourth of July? The glorious Fourth was by no stretch of the imagination ever intended to be a day given over to the preparation for war, to the rattling of the saber. It was historically the day that America cut itself loose from what was considered a tyranny and a despotism exercised or typified by men in red, bearing arms.” “It is a great nation play-day, when men wish to be on the sands of the shores or in the mountains or on track or field, and we do not think that this effort to make the whole nation—for that is the real idea—stand at attention and salute and goose step and fire blank cartridges will go down with the people…

There is a drift here which is sweeping this country along the very lines which the founders of the government dreaded.… What should be done with the Fourth of July is not to make it a day for turning out all the troops available, and as many unthinking civilians as can be formed into line, but a day for the reaffirmation of that distrust and dislike of permanent armed forces and of their glorification which actuated George Washington and all of his associates, none more so than Thomas Jefferson, the radical, the disarmer of the fleet, whom it is now the fashion to celebrate.

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Finally, in the summer of 1991, we published dozens of comments by prominent writers and progressive public figures on the meaning to them of the word “patriotism.” Many contributors explored the tension between patriotism and internationalism, while others struggled to reconcile authentic patriotic feeling with an all-too-complete understanding of the ways in which their own countries repeatedly betray those loyalties. Read more of these meditations on patriotism from contributors like Christopher Hitchens, Katha Pollitt and Benjamin Spock here:

James Chace, professor at Bard College: “Patriotism in the American grain might be embedded in the idea that America must act—at home and abroad—as an exemplar of liberty. To the extent that America violates this principle, it is the obligation off the citizen to dissent. For an American, I know of no other definition of patriotism.”

Molly Ivins, columnist for Dallas Times Herald: “I believe patriotism is best expressed in our works, not our parades. We are the heirs of the most magnificent political legacy any people has ever been given. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” It is the constant struggle to protect and enlarge that legacy, to make sure that it applies to all citizens, that patriotism lies. When some creepy little shit like Richard Nixon (whose understanding of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for redress of grievances is so profound that he proposed to send teamsters thugs and murderers out to ‘break the noses’ of antiwar protesters) becomes President, our heritage is diminished and soiled in such an ugly fashion. …Vote, write, speak, work, march, sue, organize, fight, struggle—whatever it takes to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Ishmael Reed, novelist: “The duty of the true patriot, a citizen of the world, is to expose nationalism as the village idiot of the Global Village.”

Jesse Jackson, president of the National Rainbow Coalition: “The true patriots invariably disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed, and are persecuted in their lifetimes even as their accomplishments are applauded after their deaths.”

Gore Vidal, novelist and essayist: “It is very hard for most Americans to be patriotic when there is no agreed-upon country to cherish, only warring tribes and, over all, a National Security State to keep the lid on.”

Carlos Fuentes, novelist: “If patriotism is a value, it manifests itself quietly, in acts of care and solidarity, in love for things both great and minute in one’s heart, but without ever ceasing to discover the values one loves at home in other peoples and in other lands. But patriotism is more voice than silence, more criticism than irrational approval. You only criticize what you care for. Criticism and dissent can be a greater act of love than cheers and raised fists or stiff-armed salutes.”

In a 2010 follow-up to that feature, The Nation asked you, our readers, what your own definitions of patriotism were; fourteen responses can be found here. A few samples:

Carole Heaster of Gordontown, PA: “My idea of patriotism is to work to assure that every citizen and visitor to the USA should be treated with the dignity of humanity that the Constitution intended, acknowledging that when one person is abused, we are all abused, and if we don’t speak up, we are all guilty of that mistreatment. We are only exceptional when we care effectively for the least of ours, the poor, the old, the infirm, the disenfranchised, the orphaned, the jobless, the hungry, the homeless, the war-torn veterans and their families and those seeking asylum from abusive governments outside of our borders. We can’t say this country is exceptional unless we each act in an exceptional manner towards our neighbors.”

Jerry Shapiro of New York, NY: “Patriotism means nothing to me. It is a mindless acceptance of your role in a tribe (much like a religion or a cult). The progressive left has long wasted its time trying to prove that we are just as patriotic as the right. Let the right have patriotism—it’s as meaningless as most of the things they like to own. I would prefer a nation of thoughtful, compassionate people who care about the people they live with and the lives they lead. People who don’t have to prove anything to anyone. People who support the nation when it’s right, and oppose it when it’s wrong.”

Rick Nagin of Cleveland, OH: “Patriotism celebrates the great cultural achievements of American writers, artists and performers. It celebrates our great athletes. It celebrates our great accomplishments in science and engineering. It celebrates and protects our country’s natural beauties and resources. Nationalism is a bad thing. It is a belief in the superiority of our country over others. It is divisive, racist and anti-democratic. It is allegiance to the corporate class that dominates our country and pursues maximum profits at the expense of our people. Nationalism justifies imperialist wars of conquest and aggression. Patriotism requires a relentless fight against nationalism.”

Feel free to share your own thoughts on patriotism in the comments section below.

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