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Friday Interview: Patriotism’s Roots

Historial Wilfred McClay discusses the roots of American patriotism

Historian Wilfred McClay recently delivered a Headliner lecture to the John Locke Foundation on the topic “The Complex Roots of American Patriotism.” He also discussed the topic with Carolina Journal associate editor Mitch Kokai. The interview also aired on Carolina Journal Radio. (Go to http://carolinajournal.com/cjradio/ to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: The title of your discussion implies that there is a difference between American patriotism and other forms. Is there a major difference?

McClay: Yes, I think one way of getting at it is to think about a distinction that George Orwell made between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism — as he defined it in that context — was strictly an affection for one’s own country, for one’s own locality, for the land, for that which was in propinquity to one’s self — and with connotations that he didn’t really draw out, but one could — of a kind of blood-and-soil loyalty to that land, to one’s ancestors, and so on.

Nationalism — on the other hand — he saw as a fundamentally ideological commitment to the nation, to the nation-state. And very often, particularly in the European context, one has had to choose between the two.

And this something that goes back a long way, even in the Roman Empire — and of course in Rome the family was extraordinarily powerful. The loyalty to Rome had to — in both legal and customary ways — supercede the loyalty to the family. It’s an either-or [choice], and very often in European history, local affiliations have had to give way to help make strong nation-states. In those countries — Italy being one of the best examples one could think of — where those local loyalties really haven’t been marshaled to the nation-state, the nation-state doesn’t work too well.

In America, we have managed — partly by intention, partly by our good fortune — to evolve or devise a way of being patriotic that doesn’t require one to make those choices. Our local affiliations and our national affiliations are not only balanced; the one feeds into the other ideally.

Our local patriotism — our sense of loyalty to local institutions, to families, to these more proximate venues — is not held at the exclusion of our national loyalty. In fact, one form of loyalty seems to support and reinforce the other.

One of the things I stress is that in some respects — particularly for people who are sort of on the right side of center, but maybe for all of us – the area that we really tend to neglect is not so much the nationalistic but the patriotic in Orwell’s distinction. That is, the non-ideological sources of national cohesion and patriotism, I think, are things that we need to give more attention to.

One of the ways to give attention to it is to give attention to history — to the specific history of the United States, of our institutions. And this might be a good point to say something about the Constitution because the Constitution is not just a document that was created in order to legitimize a kind of endlessly contested battle in American society over what will stand and what will fall, what will endure and what will not endure.

The Constitution establishes some very specific parameters for our national life that are not really subject to constant review. So this notion of America as a kind of open-ended experiment in which everything is provisional and all sorts of transformations are thinkable, this is not the mindset of the founders. This is not the outlook of the Constitution. Part of its great strength is in the fact that it does establish some fairly well-defined structures within which change is supposed to take place.

I think it’s particularly appropriate to say on this occasion that the Constitution is not just to be looked at, so to speak, rationally. I don’t mean that you should look at it irrationally. But I mean that part of the Constitution’s standing in our culture is that it is an object of veneration — as much as the Washington monument and the Capitol building and the national parks and these other symbols of the nation.

We value things like critical thinking and critical discourse so much in this country and so much especially in academia. Critical thinking, that’s the motherhood and apple pie issue in academia. “Are you being critical?” That’s not the only thing that’s involved in being a civilized human being — the ability to be critical.

Memory is involved — the memory of those who’ve come before, a sense of gratitude to those who came before who are in some sense a source of our very being. I see this as partly having a religious grounding, but I don’t think one necessarily has to [agree] — simply a recognition in human terms of the fact that the things that we have owe a great deal to those who’ve preceded us.

This is one of the roots of patriotism that I talk about — this cultivation of memory, of the ability to have a historical consciousness, a consciousness of the present as being grounded in and connected to the past. This is a very subtle kind of thing. It doesn’t tend to raise anybody’s blood pressure on Capitol Hill or in think tanks — left and right. But I think it is at the core of what it is to be a civilized human being. And I think it’s something we neglect at our peril.

One of the things I think we need to do periodically is express our veneration of our Constitution, which is a remarkable document that has survived a very long time. I mean in one sense we’re a very young country and in another sense a very old country because of the longevity of our Constitution.