Patriotism’s Secret History

Patriotism’s Secret History

Our most cherished national symbols—from the Pledge of Allegiance to “America the Beautiful” to Lady Liberty’s poetry—are rooted in liberal ideals.


Many Americans believe that the left is “antipatriotic” (and even anti-American), while the political right truly expresses the American spirit and reveres its symbols. Particularly since the late 1960s–when the movement against US intervention in Vietnam gained momentum–the terms “progressive” and “patriotism” have rarely been used in the same sentence, at least in the mainstream media. It has become conventional wisdom that conservatives wave the American flag while leftists burn it. Patriotic Americans display the flag on their homes; progressives turn it upside down to show contempt.

Recent months have seen a dramatic increase in the number of Americans proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes on their cars, homes, businesses, T-shirts, caps, lapel pins and even tattoos. This outpouring of flag-waving signifies a variety of sentiments–from identification with the victims of the September 11 attacks to support for the military’s invasion of Afghanistan. But in our popular culture, displays of the American flag are–along with the very idea of “patriotism”–typically viewed as expressions of “conservative” politics. The patriotic fervor since September 11 has revitalized that belief and, as in other times, has given conservative politicos and pundits a handy means to undermine dissent and progressive initiatives.

A case in point: In Santa Barbara, California, progressive County Supervisor Gail Marshall is facing the possibility of a recall election fueled by right-wing forces opposed to her support for environmental regulation, affordable housing and labor unions. Because Marshall occupies the key swing seat on the five-member county board, Santa Barbara’s conservative activists–funded by oil interests, agribusiness and land developers–have been trying to unseat her for years. They launched a recall campaign after Marshall refused to rubber-stamp a proposal to require the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings of one of her community advisory boards. Marshall said she wanted the board to discuss the idea, but her opponents–who made sure that TV camera crews were present at the meeting where the issue first surfaced–have turned her civil libertarian instincts into proof that she’s hostile to public expressions of patriotism.

In TV ads and newsletters, Marshall’s opponents–who are gathering signatures for a recall petition that, if successful, will go before the voters this fall–claim that her alleged reluctance to have the pledge recited was clear confirmation of their suspicion that she is a “socialist.”

Ironically, the Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by a leading Christian socialist, Francis Bellamy, who was fired from his Boston ministry for his sermons depicting Jesus as a socialist. Bellamy penned the Pledge of Allegiance for Youth’s Companion, a magazine for young people published in Boston with a circulation of about 500,000.

A few years earlier, the magazine had sponsored a largely successful campaign to sell American flags to public schools. In 1891 the magazine hired Bellamy–whose first cousin Edward Bellamy was the famous socialist author of the utopian novel Looking Backward–to organize a public relations campaign to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America by promoting use of the flag in public schools. Bellamy gained the support of the National Education Association, along with President Benjamin Harrison and Congress, for a national ritual observance in the schools, and he wrote the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the program’s flag salute ceremony.

Bellamy thought such an event would be a powerful expression on behalf of free public education. Moreover, he wanted all the schoolchildren of America to recite the pledge at the same moment. He hoped the pledge would promote a moral vision to counter the individualism embodied in capitalism and expressed in the climate of the Gilded Age, with its robber barons and exploitation of workers. Bellamy intended the line “One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all” to express a more collective and egalitarian vision of America.

Bellamy’s view that unbridled capitalism, materialism and individualism betrayed America’s promise was widely shared in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Many American radicals and progressive reformers proudly asserted their patriotism. To them, America stood for basic democratic values–economic and social equality, mass participation in politics, free speech and civil liberties, elimination of the second-class citizenship of women and racial minorities, a welcome mat for the world’s oppressed people. The reality of corporate power, right-wing xenophobia and social injustice only fueled progressives’ allegiance to these principles and the struggle to achieve them.

Most Americans are unaware that much of our patriotic culture–including many of the leading icons and symbols of American identity–was created by artists and writers of decidedly left-wing and even socialist sympathies. A look at the songs sung at post-9/11 patriotic tribute events and that appear on the various patriotic compilation albums, or the clips incorporated into film shorts celebrating the “American spirit,” reveals that the preponderance of these originated in the forgotten tradition of left-wing patriotism.

Begin with the lines inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus was a poet of considerable reputation in her day, a well-known figure in literary circles. She was a strong supporter of Henry George and his “socialistic” single-tax program, and a friend of William Morris, a leading British socialist. Her welcome to the “wretched refuse” of the earth, written in 1883, was an effort to project an inclusive and egalitarian definition of the American dream.

The words to “America the Beautiful” were written in 1893 by Katharine Lee Bates, a professor of English at Wellesley College. Bates was an accomplished and published poet, whose book America the Beautiful and Other Poems includes a sequence of poems expressing outrage at US imperialism in the Philippines. Indeed, Bates identified with the anti-imperialist movement of her day and was part of progressive reform circles in the Boston area concerned about labor rights, urban slums and women’s suffrage. She was also an ardent feminist, and for decades lived with and loved her Wellesley colleague Katharine Coman, an economist and social activist. “America the Beautiful” not only speaks to the beauty of the American continent but also reflects her view that US imperialism undermines the nation’s core values of freedom and liberty. The poem’s final words–“and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea”–are an appeal for social justice rather than the pursuit of wealth.

Many Americans consider Woody Guthrie’s song “This Land Is Your Land,” penned in 1940, to be our unofficial national anthem. Guthrie was a radical with strong ties to the Communist Party. He was inspired to write the song as an answer to Irving Berlin’s popular “God Bless America,” which he thought failed to recognize that it was the “people” to whom America belonged. The words to “This Land Is Your Land” reflect Guthrie’s fusion of patriotism, support for the underdog and class struggle. In this song Guthrie celebrates America’s natural beauty and bounty but criticizes the country for its failure to share its riches, reflected in the song’s last and least-known verse:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry I stood there wondering
If this land was made for you and me.

Guthrie was not alone in combining patriotism and radicalism during the Depression and World War II. In this period, many American composers, novelists, artists and playwrights engaged in similar projects. In the early 1930s, for example, a group of young composers and musicians–including Marc Blitzstein (author of the musical “The Cradle Will Rock”), Charles Seeger (a well-known composer and musicologist, and father of folk singer Pete Seeger) and Aaron Copland–formed the “composers’ collective” to write music that would serve the cause of the working class. They turned to American roots and folk music for inspiration. Many of their compositions–including Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and “Lincoln Portrait”–are now patriotic musical standards, regularly performed at major civic events.

Earl Robinson was a member of the composers’ collective who pioneered the effort to combine patriotism and progressivism. In 1939 he teamed with lyricist John La Touche to write “Ballad for Americans,” which was performed on the CBS radio network by Paul Robeson, accompanied by chorus and orchestra. This eleven-minute cantata provided a musical review of American history, depicted as a struggle between the “nobodies who are everybody” and an elite that fails to understand the real, democratic essence of America.

Robeson, at the time one of the best-known performers on the world stage, became, through this work, a voice of America. Broadcasts and recordings of “Ballad for Americans” (by Bing Crosby as well as Robeson) were immensely popular. In the summer of 1940, it was performed at the national conventions of both the Republican and Communist parties. The work soon became a staple in school choral performances, but it was literally ripped out of many public school songbooks after Robinson and Robeson were identified with the radical left and blacklisted during the McCarthy period. Since then, however, “Ballad for Americans” has been periodically revived, notably during the bicentennial celebration in 1976, when a number of pop and country singers performed it in concerts and on TV.

During World War II, with lyricist Lewis Allen, Robinson co-wrote another patriotic hit, “The House I Live In.” Its lyrics asked, and then answered, the question posed in the first line of the song, “What is America to me?” The song evokes America as a place where all races can live freely, where one can speak one’s mind, where the cities as well as the natural landscapes are beautiful. The song was made a hit by Frank Sinatra in 1945. Sinatra also starred in an Oscar-winning movie short–written by Albert Maltz, later one of the Hollywood Ten–in which he sang “The House I Live In” to challenge bigotry, represented in the movie by a gang of kids who rough up a Jewish boy.

“The House I Live In,” like “Ballad for Americans,” was exceedingly popular for several years but became controversial during the McCarthy period and has largely disappeared from public consciousness. Its co-author, Lewis Allen, was actually Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher who also penned “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching song made famous by Billie Holiday. In the 1950s Meeropol and his wife adopted the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their parents were executed as atom spies. Despite this, Sinatra kept the song in his repertoire. Perhaps the most astonishing performance of “The House I Live In” was at the nationally televised commemoration of the centenary of the Statue of Liberty in 1986, when Sinatra sang it as the finale to the program, with President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy Reagan, sitting directly in front of him.

Only a handful of Americans could have grasped the political irony of that moment: Sinatra performing a patriotic anthem written by blacklisted writers to a President who, as head of the Screen Actors Guild in the 1950s, helped create Hollywood’s purge of radicals. Sinatra’s own left-wing (and nearly blacklisted) past, and the history of the song itself, have been obliterated from public memory.

Even during the 1960s, American progressives continued to seek ways to fuse their love of country with their opposition to the national government’s policies. The March on Washington in 1963 gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King Jr. famously quoted the words to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Phil Ochs, then part of a new generation of politically conscious singer-songwriters who emerged during the 1960s, wrote an anthem in the Guthrie vein, “Power and Glory,” which coupled love of country with a strong plea for justice and equality. Interestingly, this song later became part of the repertoire of the US Army band. And in 1968, in a famous antiwar speech on the steps of the Capitol, Norman Thomas, the aging leader of the Socialist Party, proclaimed, “I come to cleanse the American flag, not burn it.”

In recent decades, Bruce Springsteen has most closely followed in the Guthrie tradition. From “Born in the USA,” to his songs about Tom Joad (the militant protagonist in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath), to his recent anthem for the victims of the September 11 tragedy (“My City of Ruins”), whom he urges to “come on rise up!” Springsteen has championed the downtrodden while challenging America to live up to its ideals. Indeed, by performing both “Born in the USA” and “Land of Hope and Dreams” at benefits for the families of World Trade Center casualties, Springsteen has coupled his anger at injustice with his belief in the nation’s promise.

In each major period of twentieth-century history–the Progressive era, the Depression, World War II and the postwar era–American radicals and progressives expressed a patriotism rooted in democratic values and consciously aimed at challenging jingoism and “my country, right or wrong” thinking. Every day, millions of Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, sing “America the Beautiful” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and memorize the words on the Statue of Liberty without knowing the names of their authors, their political inspiration or the historical context in which they were written.

The progressive authors of much of America’s patriotic iconography rejected blind nationalism, militaristic drumbeating and sheeplike conformism. So it would be a dire mistake to allow, by default, jingoism to become synonymous with patriotism and the American spirit. Throughout our nation’s history, radicals and reformers have viewed their movements as profoundly patriotic. They have believed that America’s core claims–fairness, equality, freedom, justice–were their own. In the midst of current patriotic exuberance both authentic and manipulated, then, it is useful to recall the forgotten cultural legacy of the left. We need to ask, once again, “What is America to us?”

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