Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Disputing patriotism is an American tradition

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
            —America the Beautiful

Every July, when Independence Day rolls around, along with the barbecues and fireworks, flying the flag and wondering if the national anthem really is unsingable, we ramp up talk of patriotism and being a patriot and feeling patriotic.
    The problem is we can’t agree on what patriotism and the “patriot dream” that we sing of really mean.
    Thomas Jefferson was 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, which helped start a war. He and John Adams spent the next 50 years fighting over what kind of nation was necessary to make real his declaration that “All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
    At the time, backers of each man doubted whether their opposites were adhering to “patriotic principles” as they defined them.
    These two men were central to replacing the Articles of Confederation, which originally translated American principles into public policy, but were so flawed that the former colonies were soon on the verge of internecine war. The U.S. Constitution was ratified with the hope of a commonality built on a more common patriotic understanding of what it meant to be America. That understanding never happened.
    In the decades that followed, patriots fought passionately over almost everything that cascaded from the Constitution.
    The first Treasury secretary was killed in a duel with another patriot over how the president should be chosen. One senator beat another nearly to death on the floor of the U.S. Senate over whether patriotism included accepting human slavery.
    At the dedication of a cemetery at Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln kept us on the course of nationhood by defining the most central of all patriotic acts, restating Jefferson’s original proposition, reinforcing the country as a union of states and redefining freedom as a new birth rooted in true equality.
    What is required of a patriot? What is a proper show of patriotism?
    The Fourth of July should remind us that there is no time, gone by or current, and no issue, except the equality of all human beings, when patriots and patriotism can be absolutely defined because the right to disagree—even over that—is the very essence of this country we love.

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