Patriotism--but How?





WHILE discussion clubs incline a serious ear to speeches on ‘Can Democracy Survive?’ and our better correspondents smuggle dispatches out of Europe showing that the dictator countries are committing economic suicide, few people seem to inquire why, if the fascist and communist nations are economically insane, they constitute so serious a menace to political democracy. At this distance it looks as if they had something democracy does not possess, or rather something American democracy has lost during the dolorous twentieth century. That something is not state regulation of business, nor holidays for workingmen, nor concentration camps, nor a well-oiled bureaucracy, nor even the capacity to make trains run on time. We can show American precedents for all these. What the dictator countries have succeeded in doing is to make patriotism glamorous. Among higher liberal circles in the United States patriotism seems nowadays to be regarded as the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Glamour has turned the trick. The technical name for this sort of trick is propaganda, but it is not ideational propaganda I am talking about. What I refer to is the prompt and efficient creation by the dictators of glamorous mythological images. These images please their downtrodden subjects, make them feel swell, and send them off to the army or a labor camp singing mistaken patriotic songs. We used to have Glamour in this country, but during the rush of intellection to the head in the twenties we rubbed it all off.

It is, of course, commonplace that Mussolini is a semi-divine Duce and Hitler a sacrosanct Führer. It is also commonplace that you can’t turn around in Berlin or Rome or Moscow without seeing a swastika, the Roman fasces, or a sickle and hammer. Everybody knows about the parades, the ‘spontaneous’ cheering, the farcical elections, the uniforms, and the perpetual celebrations. Naziism has its martyrs, — the ‘Horst Wessel’ song commemorates one of them, — fascism its saints, and communism its heroes. It is true that the official history of these countries, which obedient citizens are required to swallow, would not delude even a weakminded freshman in the United States, but that is not the point: the point is that the official history is full of heroism, chivalry, romance. It takes the form of the rescuing of the helpless maiden Germania or Italia or Russia by knightserrant against overwhelming odds. It is a modern version of the King Arthur story, the American Revolution, and freeing the slaves, all in one. The result is that the communist or fascist citizen, at least in his public moments, has an exhilarating sense of living in a vast grand opera.

Copyright 1938, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

Why is there no American grand opera to correspond? Why has American democracy mislaid its mythology and lost its glamour? The answer is in part that we had our own grand opera until, under the combined attacks of ‘ progressive’ educators, the debunking biographer, and social historians, we grew shamefaced about it. Take, for example, the matter of the musical score. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ though unsingable, is just as vigorous a tune as ‘Giovinezza,’ but we don’t know the words. ‘Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean’ tingles with vitality, but try to get it sung at a ball park! ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (peace to the South!) is a superb song — we can sing the chorus, some of us chanting ‘ Glory, glory, hallelujah’ and others ‘John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave.’ I do not care for ‘America,’ with its mouldy flavor of commencement programmes, but ‘Yankee Doodle’ is a good fighting song, which we can’t even burble. Everybody shouts when the band plays ‘Dixie,’ but will some kind Rotarian recite the verses? The sorrowful fact that well-intentioned citizens mistake Sousa’s ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ for the national anthem is not the sort of error that Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin permits.

Grand opera, however, is more than a musical score; it supposes characters and a plot. Let us have an examination in the plot of the American story. Can any little boy or girl earn a dime by telling me the anecdote which gave birth to each of the following sentences? ‘Damn the torpedoes — full speed ahead! ’ ‘ You may fire when ready, Gridley.’ ‘ We have met the enemy and they are ours.’ ‘Don’t cheer, boys — the poor devils are dying.’ ‘Don’t give up the ship.’ ‘Millions for defence, but not one cent for tribute.’ ‘I would rather be right than be President’ (No, Sammy, this does not refer to George M. Cohan). ‘I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.’ ‘Our Federal Union: it must be preserved.’

The class will next recite from memory, thus rivaling good communists, (1) Patrick Henry’s oration; (2) the Declaration of Independence as far as the bill of particulars; (3) the peroration of Webster’s ‘Reply to Hayne’; (4) Senator Thurston on Cuban affairs; (5) Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Next, the boys and girls will tell teacher the facts in the case of (a) Molly Pitcher; (b) Johnny Appleseed; (c) Kit Carson; (d) Davy Crockett; (e) R. P. Hobson; (f) Stephen Decatur; (g) Marcus Whitman; and (h) General Stark. The examination will conclude by having the scholars identify the author and name the poem in which each of the following phrases occurs: ‘When Freedom from her mountain height’; ‘Ay, tear her tattered ensign down’; ‘The Turk lay dreaming of the hour’; ‘All quiet along the Potomac’; ‘Out of the focal and foremost fire’; ‘By the flow of the inland river Whence the fleets of iron have fled’; ‘John P. Robinson, he sez he wunt vote fer Guvener B.’; ‘ When faith is lost, when honor dies, The man is dead’; ‘Blindness we may forgive, but baseness we will smite.’ (Southern children will be placed under a slight handicap concerning one of these items.)

If this is too hard, the C students may identify any five of the following: (1) Old Fuss and Feathers; (2) the Swamp Fox; (3) the Mill Boy of the Slashes; (4) The Pathfinder (not Natty Bumppo); (5) the Rock of Chickamauga; (6) The American Farmer; (7) Me Too Platt; (8) Hosea Biglow; (9) Old Rough-and-Ready; (10) Tippecanoe and Tyler too. No fair looking in a reference book. A grade of fifty will be considered passing.

I realize, of course, that a number of these items have a regrettable military flavor, which World Peaceways, Inc., would not approve. I can only say that the heroic moments of history seem to be commonly associated with the danger of death. In fact, I shall dare the scorn of advanced intellectuals by citing a quotation guaranteed to make the ghost of Hart Crane wince: —

And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers
And the temples of his gods?

No, this is not an American poem, and it is banned from our better school readers because its author has passed out of fashion. Its sentiment, however, seems to be powerful in an important Mediterranean kingdom, somewhat to the present embarrassment of the nation which produced the poet.

I likewise freely admit that under the searchlight of historical science some of the sentences I have quoted have been proved apocryphal, and some of the heroes whose sobriquets are given above have been conclusively shown up by modern writers. I also know that Washington did not pray at Valley Forge, that the Boston Massacre was not a massacre, that John Hancock made a good thing out of violating the revenue laws, that Sheridan’s ride never occurred, and that the charge on San Juan Hill was, from every sensible point of view, an hilarious absurdity. I have, however, one advantage over the rising generation: I knew my American mythology before I knew its historical corrective; and inasmuch as the vaunted conflict among ideologies threatens to be won by the nation with the greatest belief in its own mythology, I wonder, now that scientific historians have destroyed most of the American myth, what it is that American democrats are to believe in during the coming struggle. To quote from another frayed classic, also scorned in intellectual circles, Harvard men who died in the Civil War were men who, in Lowell’s opinion,

. . . followed [Truth] and found her
Where all may hope to find,
Not in the ashes of the burnt-out mind,
But beautiful, with danger’s sweetness round her.

If democracy should have to fight, will it be emotionally inspired by the sound historic fact that the Lincoln administration is supposed to have favored the high-tariff crowd?


In the nineteenth century, Americans were simple-minded enough to have a mythology. The facts of American history were widely known. Rising generations learned them in school. On Friday afternoon classes were adjourned while perspiring victims declaimed fragments of nationally known orations, patriotic poetry, and sound rhetorical pieces describing a blind preacher, narrating a thrilling climb up the Natural Bridge, or excoriating Benedict Arnold. No child of the Iodine State who toiled through William Gilmore Simms’s history of South Carolina, written for schools, could be ignorant of the exploits of Francis Marion or General Nathanael Greene. No schoolboy put through Appleton’s Fifth Reader failed to discover that Daniel Webster was the greatest man who ever lived. No boy who learned both text and gestures from the immortal McGuffey but was thoroughly grounded in the dramatic moments of the history of freedom: —

‘Make way for liberty,’ he cried,
Made way for liberty, and died.
Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but him had fled.

The fact that a perverse and adulterate generation continues this last quotation by an apocryphal reference to goobers is simply a tribute to the thoroughness with which the nation was once taught to admire Mrs. Hemans’s hero. But if you did not care for the immortal youth you could hang out the old flag with Barbara Frietchie or ride twenty miles with Phil Sheridan and Thomas Buchanan Read.

The patriotic reader met an immense and genuine demand. Throughout most of the nineteenth century every American knew that this nation was the greatest thing that had ever happened in the history of the human race. Every Fourth of July some rising young lawyer read aloud the Declaration on the village green. At every county fair an itinerant Congressman pulled the lion’s tail and made the eagle scream. All good Americans abhorred the effete monarchies of Europe. All good Americans understood that the immediate purpose of any British duke was to place his heel on the neck of freeborn republicans. The image of Washington or Jackson or Lincoln or Lee held precisely the same place in the esteem of the people as Mussolini or Hitler or Stalin wants to hold in the esteem of his own nation. In those times we made the welkin ring, painted the firmament red, white, and blue, and announced to an amused universe that Columbia was bounded on the north by the Aurora Borealis, on the east by the Garden of Eden, on the west by the Fortunate Isles, and on the south by the Day of Judgment. We made ourselves supremely ridiculous and supremely happy. Observers like Dickens, Mrs. Trollope, Miss Martineau, and others satirized our effervescence and envied our simplicity. We had our mythology, and we believed in it.

To-day Washington is a figure on a postage stamp, we are not quite sure whether Andy or Stonewall Jackson beat the British at New Orleans, and purple passages about the American eagle are no longer heard, even in Congress. We are all for social justice or the Townsend plan, but neither programme has yet produced its demigod. When economic analysis comes in at the door, patriotic figures of speech fly out at the window. It is impossible to twist the lion’s tail with one hand and make a graph of the wages of coal miners with the other. In all the argument over minimum-wage laws, nobody has referred to the full dinner pail, the pauper millions of Europe, or pressing a crown of thorns upon the brow of labor. Statistics are valuable, but a little oldfashioned Fourth-of-July oratory is the tonic we really need.

The fervor has gone out of our sublime and ridiculous enthusiasm in the twentieth century for a variety of reasons — economic determinism, sociological analysis, the radio (which killed off the string-tie orator), realism on the stage and in fiction, which forbids romantic gestures and heroic thought. One cause worth discussing is professional enthusiasm for a new sort of education supposed to develop the free personality of the child.

The fact that the child was to develop in the United States of America and not in a gray abstraction called the modern world has not troubled educators who look down on JeanJacques Rousseau as an unscientific generalizer. The child is to remain a child as long as possible, and consequently he is not to be given adult stuff to read until the latest possible moment. The child is supposed to be brought up to love his fellow man, and therefore stories like the fight of the Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard have been quietly dropped from school. Instead, he learns to love the kindly Indians, who built tepees. The child is nevertheless supposed to develop into a little voter, and in place of learning to hate Benedict Arnold he is instructed in the mysteries of the local waterworks. It is not yet clear, after a quarter of a century of advanced education, that the results, as shown in municipal politics, have justified the erasure of romantic drama from the American school.

Think of the comment of sturdy Mr. McGuffey upon the book from which a friend of mine, aged six, is learning to read. I quote from the incredible preface:—

The purpose of Our Animal Books is to motivate in the growing citizen, from his pre-school days to junior high school, an intelligent regard for his own pets and for the animals of his city, state, and country. He, however, rather than the animal, is the chief factor [sic] in the book. . . .

The primer, Fuzzy Tail, is devoted to the kitten, telling in story form just how a kitten should be fed, handled, and properly played with[!].

I have no doubt that school superintendents who adopt this series look down on Maria Edgeworth (if they have ever heard of her) as a didactic old woman bent on ruining the lives of children, though the precise difference between this sort of pedagogy and eighteenth-century didacticism is not evident. But let us return to Our Animal Books. After Fuzzy Tail, we rise through Sniff, which ‘gives youthful owners similar instruction in the feeding, housing, exercising, and general upbringing of a puppy, again through story medium’ (why medium?), to Paths to Conservation, which ‘points toward participation in the protection and conservation of the vanishing bird and mammal life of our country.’ (As the little boy said, mammals are apparently not as extinct as they used to be.) I read likewise that ‘all information pertaining to the care and treatment of animals has been checked carefully by respective [sic] authorities.'

Let us not make fun of McGuffey’s rhetoric. McGuffey never dreamed that a child had to be ‘motivated’ as a ‘factor,’ knew not the word ‘correlation,’ more blessed than the waters of Abana and Pharpar, and failed to consult ‘respective’ authorities. Nevertheless, I ever and again meet aging Americans who can with honest pride recite piece after piece from McGuffey or Appleton, but in the course of teaching several thousand undergraduates over a period of years I do not find that they can recite anything at all, and their ignorance of American history is so immense that Harvard University has just instituted a system of competitive prizes to get them to read some of it.

The history books have gone the way of the school readers. I admire Professor Charles A. Beard, like all who have to do with American history; but, from the point of view of keeping alive a necessary patriotic glow in the juvenile breast, he has had an unfortunate influence. The school of social historians has substituted movements for personalities, conflicts of economic interest for dramatic events, sociology for the romance of personal endeavor, and ‘citizenship’ for hairbreadth escapes by sea and land. Some stories, it is true, have been spared. General Lee still rides sadly through the Confederate Army on Traveller, and Lincoln is still assassinated by the cowardly Booth. I have no doubt the school histories are sounder, better, and more intelligent books than Simms’s parochial History of South Carolina or Ridpath’s History of the World. I do not deny that to learn how the Puritans grew corn or what early railways were like is exciting. But I cannot picture a younger generation going into Armageddon, should that be tragically necessary, inspired by memories of railroad grants or aglow with accounts of the rise of sectionalism in the Deep South.

We debunked too much. During the iconoclastic twenties spirited biographers laid about them with a mighty modern hand. They told us that Lincoln was a small-town politician, Washington a land grabber, Grant a stubborn and conceited mule, and Bryan an amusing idiot. We learned that there was something to be said for Aaron Burr, but not very much for Sam Adams, Longfellow, or Harriet Beecher Stowe. In place of being American vikings, the pioneers turned out to be neurotic, dissatisfied fellows unpopular in their home towns, and Columbia, the gem of the ocean, was described as a sort of kept woman in the pay of millionaires. Apparently the only Americans who ever died to make the world safe for democracy died in 1917-1918, and made a mistake in doing so. I do not deny either the truth or the necessity of many of these modern biographies. I am no more comfortable than the next man in a room full of plaster saints. But, when the biographers got through, all the heroes had disappeared.

Meanwhile in Germany, Italy, and Russia the manufacture of heroes has gone steadily forward. There is no use in saying they are fake heroes. The only way to conquer an alien mythology is to have a better mythology of your own.


What we need is a patriotic renaissance, but we need not shut our eyes to the dangerous fact that a patriotic renaissance is exactly what a number of interested pressure groups are playing for. Advanced liberals are perfectly right in assuming that every patriot is guilty until he is proved innocent. Too many selfish interests have adopted the star-spangled manner. In fact, one of the difficulties of rehabilitating our mythology is that all the stirring phrases have been appropriated by organizations of the right or organizations of the left. The Liberty League, the American Legion, the Constitution Society, the American Minute Men, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the International League for Peace and Freedom, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Colonial Dames — the trouble is that most of these bodies have an axe to grind. They want to call somebody else un-American.

Patriotism may not always be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it is too often a convenient disguise for a one-hundredper-center who wants somebody else to go back home. Nor are radicals without guile. If the La Follette committee has turned the spotlight on reactionaries whose favorite reading matter is the Constitution whenever they import pluguglies to break a strike, I have noted a wonderful interest in the Bill of Rights among communists in danger of arrest and deportation. The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. There is scarcely a pressure group in the country that cannot cite Jefferson or Lincoln, Washington or Wilson, in support of a quiet little programme of its own.

It is not thus that a patriotic renaissance is to come about. Because the dictator countries have cleverly manipulated a patriotic mythology for sinister ends it does not follow, because we are not yet a dictator country, that patriotic mythology cannot be manipulated for sinister ends in the United States. We regard ourselves as a free and enlightened people, but so do patriotic Italians, Germans, and Russians regard themselves. If we think they are deceived, they have a right to retort the argument on us. I do not wish to be so deceived. I do not want any scientifically manipulated propaganda. I regret that Americans cannot sing their own national anthem, but if it comes to a choice between singing it under compulsion or remaining silent in a concentration camp I trust I shall not be too old to go to the concentration camp. If, as the overzealous believe, there is a red network over the land, God forbid that we should now create a redwhite-and-blue network. I have no desire to echo Madame Roland’s pathetic cry: ‘O Liberty! Liberty! how many crimes are committed in thy name!’

Neither do we want any unhistorical history. Official persons who suppress school texts in the interests of ‘Americanism’ because some honest historian has tried to tell the truth as he sees it are not only thoroughly un-American, but doing in a small way precisely what Messrs. Mussolini, Hitler, and Stalin are doing on a larger scale. If the ‘Aryan’ version of history is funny, or would be if it were not so deplorable, an ‘American’ version of history would be just as comic and just as disastrous. We want no legends marked: ‘Approved by the Bureau of Propaganda, Washington, D. C.’ I do not propose that on a given date all good Americans shall devoutly believe that Washington cut down the cherry tree, cheerfully remarking, ‘Father, I cannot tell a lie.’ But what seems to have happened is that in our enthusiasm for social forces we have omitted most of the thrilling anecdotes. We have modernized American history so thoroughly that it is everywhere up to date, and as a result John Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Buffalo Bill are made to behave as if they were members of the Kiwanis Club looking for better business sites.

It would be idle to deny the economic motive which sent adventurers to the New World, but it seems to me equal folly to omit for that reason the tale of the lonely and heroic exploits which they wrought. I have no doubt that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was intended as a profitable commercial enterprise, but the Pilgrims and the Puritans both wanted to worship God in their own way. General Oglethorpe was really a noble soul, and Roger Williams is still a great man. The debtor classes and hardboiled merchants undoubtedly egged on the American Revolution; nevertheless Tom Paine was not writing nonsense when he exclaimed: ‘These are the times that try men’s souls!’ Does the fact that Vergennes wanted to increase French prestige lessen the romantic gallantry of Lafayette? Washington did not cross the Delaware in the fatuous manner of the celebrated painting; nevertheless he crossed it, and it was full of floating ice. I may add that he and his ragged Continentals were likewise extremely uncomfortable at Valley Forge.

A whole regiment of researchers looking for sectionalism cannot rob the little American navy of glorious episodes during the Tripolitan campaign or the War of 1812. Such, however, is our zeal for sociology and economic determinism that Mr. Stephen Vincent Benét seems to be the only American to realize that Daniel Webster was a great and thrilling man. If it was wrong for Jared Sparks to correct the erratic spelling of the Father of his Country, what shall we say of historical works which dismiss the Lewis and Clark expedition in a single phrase, send the Mormons to Utah in a sentence, and mention Custer’s Last Stand in a footnote? We have a picturesque and romantic past, which we seem bent on making as dull and modern as we can.


If we really want to believe that political democracy is worth fighting for, we need to be told over and over again what pain and suffering it has cost. Wiser than we, the nineteenth century kept its eye on that issue. Scientific historians we have in abundance; what we lack is a Macaulay, sure that the Whigs were right and the Tories wrong, and heartily concerned less political liberty might suffer. We need to be told about Magna Charta and Arnold von Winkelried and John Huss and Savonarola and Pym and Hampden and the Gray Champion and Sergeant Moultrie and the burning zeal of Calhoun and the fervid faith of William Lloyd Garrison and the quiet heroism of Grant’s last years and the career of Fighting Bob La Follette. We need to know about the Watauga settlement and Boonesboro and Fort Bridger and the Oregon trail. We need to know these things, not as the products of economic forces, but as human drama. Men are but children of a larger growth. They will listen to a tale of D’Artagnan and Richelieu when a dissertation on the economic policy of Colbert leaves them cold.

Mr. Bernard DeVoto is a novelist and critic for whom I have a vast respect. Recently he argued that the historical novel came to its full flower in the works of Mr. James Boyd, the theory being that Mr. Boyd is the first person to picture adequately the experiences and emotions of an average, inarticulate man participating in great events. This is what may be called the realistic theory of historical fiction, and there is a great deal to be said for it. But there is also a great deal to be said on the other side of the argument. There is such a thing as historical romance. Any practising novelist can write rings around Thomas Nelson Page and George W. Cable, but the practical result of the romantic school of Southern historical novelists was to make Southern history a living tradition in that region. What I should like to see is a school of writers and dramatists trying to make the history of liberty a living tradition.

Such a literature will fail, however, if it confines its interests to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts and the F. F. V.’s. ‘Old Americans’ (hateful phrase!) tend to take the point of view that American history is their private possession because they were here first. Aside from the fact that the only persons entitled to the benefit of this silly argument are the Indians, the assumption is not even true. In New England the French Canadians have a better claim, or at least as good a one; and as for the South, your proud first families will have to mingle with the Mexican descendants of Spaniards who pushed their frontier up into North Carolina if they are consistent.

It is unfortunate that neither the Mayflower nor Captain Smith’s little fleet carried anybody by the name of Shimultowski, Cohen, Paladopolous, Tokanyan, Lauria, McGillicuddy, Swenson, or Schimmelpfennig on their rolls, because it is precisely the children and grandchildren of the millions who ‘came over’ some centuries after these earlier immigrations who need to have their imaginations kindled by American mythology. The gulf between the Boston Brahmins and the Boston Irish, old Detroiters and the swarming thousands of automobile workers, the first families of Cleveland and the Poles, the Armenians, the Czechs, the Ruthenians, and other racial groups, is not, however, going to be bridged by a bright recital of the French and Indian Wars.

No race or religion or group or nationality can be permitted to assume that it has a monopoly of American history, and no race or religion or group or nationality can be permitted to feel it is excluded, if political democracy is to survive. The founding fathers did not, unfortunately, include race-ism among the elements to be combated in the Bill of Rights; for in the eighteenth century men were men, not herds of stock for breeding purposes. Consequently, if democracy is to revive its living legend, it cannot confine that legend to the exploits of a favored few. We shall somehow have to include the drama of human liberty in our renaissance, no less than the drama of American democracy.

As the letter paper of the National Rededication Movement remarks: ‘America is unbelievably undersold to its own citizens.’ True, but who are the Americans? How shall we revive patriotism without chauvinism, economic selfinterest, or racial snobbery? And if we do not revive the history of liberty as a living faith, how shall we combat an alien mythology of race, militarism, and an uncomfortable version of the heroic in history?