The Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, Va., recently held an essay contest for high school students on the topic: ”What civic value do you believe is most essential to being an American?” Over 50,000 students participated from all 50 states and U.S. territories. The winners and runners-up received cash prizes, with $5,000 awarded to each regional first-place winner. Eagle Publishing was proud to be one of the sponsors. HumanEvents.com will be publishing the top nine winning essays over the next two weeks. Every Saturday we will be spotlighting a winning entry. This is the third essay.
Patriotism is devotion to your country: to love your country is to love its institutions and values. Patriotism is inherent to good citizenship because all other civic values have their root in the desire to better the country. Patriotism has a special place in the American identity- from the Enlightenment ideals of the Revolution, through Manifest Destiny, through Reagan’s musings on patriotism in his Farewell Address, Americans have always held patriotism in high esteem for good reason. It is patriotism that unites Americans as a nation and as a people.
One of the greatest documents professing patriotism in American history is The American Crisis, a series of essays by Thomas Paine. In his first essay Paine states, “The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” He concludes the series by stating “And when we view a flag, which to the eye is beautiful, and to contemplate its rise and origin inspires a sensation of sublime delight, our national honor must unite with our interest to prevent injury to the one, or to insult the other.” The American Crisis is a call to patriotism; Paine’s purpose in writing The American Crisis was to encourage American solidarity against Britain in the early and uncertain days of America. Were it not for American patriotism, America would not have won the Revolution. The first essay of The American Crisis was judged so inspirational that Washington read it aloud to his demoralized troops before the attack on Trenton.
Thomas Paine was a great admirer of George Washington; he described Washington as a “cabinet of fortitude.” Washington was quite possibly the greatest American patriot. At a meeting of his officers, after they had urged him to march on Congress, Washington put on a pair of glasses to read a letter. General Washington asked his men to “permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers were touched; any thoughts of a march on Congress died there. Washington’s service to America was not for personal gain- it was for the betterment of his nation and his countrymen. Washington had everything to lose in the American Revolution; by being a leading Revolutionary, he put his property, life, and honor on the line, with little chance of personal betterment. This is patriotism at its finest. Americans can look to Washington as an example of the greatness of selfless patriotism.
All citizens should try to demonstrate patriotism in their actions. I hang a flag outside my house to show patriotism. I follow national events, and will vote when I’m of age. And I’m an Eagle Scout. Whenever a Scout recites the Scout Oath, he begins with "On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty, to God and my country…" Patriotism is promoted by Scouting, because Scouting, as a youth development organization, seeks to make better citizens of boys. By being an Eagle Scout, I hope to demonstrate patriotism and encourage others to do the same.
Patriotism is the source of other civic virtues: a patriot is industrious, persistent, respectful, and courageous, because actions that exemplify these and other virtues uplift the country, making it better for everybody. Americans are unlike other nationalities in that we do not share a common ethnicity or religion. Rather, we are united by ideals. We are united by patriotism, devotion to a country that has brought freedom to millions of people. What other country can boast of a Revolution based on the ideals of liberty and freedom that did not fall into despotism and chaos? Americans should be patriotic, because patriotism is the force that holds our country together and advances our nation. Patriotism is, ultimately, selflessness for the benefit of other citizens. It is for the benefit of our countrymen and our nation that every American should strive for the highest patriotic ideal.
In light of Donald Trump’s “law and order” speech at the Republican national convention, Jon Stewart offered a strong riposte to the idea that patriotism only belonged to Republicans.
We asked you for your thoughts on the matter – whether you identify as a patriot, what it means, and how your beliefs translate into actions in your everyday life.
Your answers are below.
Michael Bain, 58, ranch manager, New Mexico
Patriotism takes hard, thoughtful, informed, dedicated, humble, steady work.
Patriotism means supporting and being responsible for your family, your community and all levels of government with your willingness to work, to volunteer, to pay your share of taxes and pay with your life if need be.
It means the majority rules, but the majority protects the rights of the minority. It means respecting your neighbor’s opinion, but not letting yourself be run over by it.
It means thinking for yourself, but also seriously working to educate yourself. To be patriotic, you need to learn and understand where the biases in information you receive are coming from. Is the information objective, or captured by special interests on the left or right, or in between?
I volunteer, I pay my taxes without griping, I vote, I obey the law. I read something of real intellectual value everyday – generally in economics, finance or ecology (and I am no intellectual nor academic).
I do not wear my patriotism on my shoulder wrapped in a flag, nor do I run around with a gun (although I own several), but I try to practice patriotism honestly, knowledgeably and quietly every day.
Jacob C, 26, office worker, California
I think Jon Stewart is wrong. I think conservatives do own patriotism, at least in its contemporary manifestation. When I think of a self-described “patriot”, I imagine a loud, belligerent man who drives an oversized pick-up truck complete with both an American flag and a “Don’t Tread on Me” flying from poles mounted in the flatbed; this man responds to any dissenting opinion about America being “No 1” with the phrase “Love it or leave it!” and occasionally sports a tricorn at political rallies.
Hence why I would never self-identify in terms of patriotism.
Benjamin Pollack, 31, stay-at-home husband with a disability, Oregon
Patriotism means standing up for views contrary to my own, and for people unlike myself, because diversity is the greatest American characteristic. From the earliest days of the republic, we have been a nation as varied politically as we are geographically. Losing sight of that richness and complexity threatens to undermine the very essence of our national character.
Patriotism means never letting go of the multiculturalism that informed the birth of this great country, and showing up to dutifully stand in the face of tyranny in any form.
Jill Denison, 65, writer and retired CPA, Ohio
To me, patriotism means supporting the values set forth in the constitution, helping to ensure that everybody – regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion – has the opportunity to enjoy the democratic freedoms of our nation. It’s about working not just for oneself, but for the good of all. Understanding that equality means everybody, not just a chosen few.
I live out my patriotism by helping people wherever and however I am able. I have neighbors who are refugees from Syria and I try to help them with everything – from dealing with everyday issues such as the electric company to agencies in regards to their residency. I write a blog and also publish in an online publication, speaking out against social injustices around the world.
I share what I have with those in need. I try to give more than I take. I try to always be kind and have a smile for everyone.
Mark Offtermatt, 30, librarian, Washington
I am not patriotic. I am not excited that I am an American. I live here; it is the hand I was dealt. The rhetoric from the patriots is simply gross, ugly, xenophobic isolationism. They really do sound like fascists, and in fact display a lot of characteristics of earlier fascist states. This indignant belief that we are right because we are American and our way is best is inflammatory and destructive.
The famous scholar of Russian studies Robert Service stated: “Communism may be the young god that failed, but American democracy has yet to work for most of the world’s people most of the time.” We export this democracy to other countries, using our patriotic belief that one size must fit all. This is dangerous, tone-deaf, and ethnocentric (all negative characteristics encompassed by Donald Trump).
This country is a mess, and there is very little to be proud of right now.
Caitlin B, 33, works in communications, Maryland
Whatever patriotism means, it’s not blind acceptance of the status quo. Patriotism means constant vigilance and asking whether the direction your country is headed in is the right one, and whether that direction makes your country a better place.
Patriotism is a spirit of comradeship for those who share your country, regardless of their background or walk of life.
Patriotism is knowing when your country is faltering, and helping it to do better.
Patriotism is representing what is best about your country, and putting its best face forward, to the rest of the world.
Patriotism isn’t about believing your country is always right. It means apologizing when your country has been wrong, and learning from the mistakes of the past to make a stronger future.
I work in philanthropy, so I am constantly deploying resources to make my community a better place to live, and hopefully creating a more tolerant society in the process. When I travel, I think I’m a good public diplomat, able to communicate what is good about America, and what is bad – while still being a proud American.
George Reed, 73, retired electrical engineer
I’m not sure what patriotism means to me anymore. When I was an enlisted sailor on a submarine, it was easy. Now I’ve watched a lot of wars take place over the years because of our “national interest” that seemed wrong, I’m thinking that perhaps the US is not such a nice place. Patriotism, in this case, would be working to align the values of tolerance and peace with our foreign policy. And working to instill tolerance in the US population.
Loren Ettinger, 41, wholesale wine broker, California
Patriotism is owning both the fact that the US was the first modern democracy, but also a democracy that still struggles with representing all facets of its plurality. Patriotism is embracing with love the fact that America is not just white Christian men, but a melting pot of all walks of life from every corner of the globe of all creeds, religions and races. We are all Americans and America is made great by all of us.
Cormac Breathnac, 40, self-employed, Kentucky
Patriotism is pride in and love for your country. But patriots don’t wear red, white and blue and beat their chests about how great their country is. Patriots work to make their country better. And that starts at home.
Sam Morrison, 62, library assistant, Illinois
As a boomer, I grew up in the age of patriotism. I took President Kennedy’s statement “And so, my fellow Americans; ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” seriously.
My father was a navy lifer and both my parents lived and served during the second world war. So yes, I love my country, warts and all. But to me patriotism is more than following a flag and the politicians who wave it. It also means defending the constitution and the bill of rights, and being willing to sacrifice myself for any of my fellow American sisters and brothers.
Our democracy is unique. There isn’t another one like it, and I want to preserve it for our future. Anyone who is an American is entitled to all of the freedoms that were given to us, fought over, died for. I come from a long line of patriotic ancestors. Their lessons and sacrifice have taught me well.
James DeSocio, 67, retired social worker, New York
Where to start? How about the first world war, the second world war, Korea and Vietnam. Fought and paid for (for the most part) by regular Americans (patriots).
The Tennessee Valley authority, Hoover dam, our beautiful national and city parks and the statues and monuments that were built and paid for (for the most part) by regular Americans (patriots).
How about Ike, who authorized the nation’s infrastructure bill during the 1950s, connecting the coasts with the highway system that we all use. Yes, it was built and paid for (for the most part) by regular Americans (patriots).
Public hospitals, public libraries, public schools and colleges, public transportation, municipal museums and the post office and the maintenance of roads, bridges and waterways. There for everyone to use, and yes, pretty much built and paid for by regular Americans (patriots).
Nasa? Everybody loves Nasa and very few Americans complain about funding it (patriots).
So being a patriot involves some type of contribution and a recognition of past and present efforts that remind us of what holds us together in the national interest.
Jason Green, 50, sales manager, Wisconsin
I emigrated from England at age 12. I later went to the army recruiting office and joined the US army, and proudly served in Germany from 1988 to 1990. I obtained my US citizenship in Milwaukee while on leave. I had tears in my eyes as I raised my hand a second time to swear the oath to defend the constitution, wearing my dress uniform. I later volunteered for duty in Saudi Arabia during desert storm.
To me, patriotism is the heartfelt belief that you are willing to give and sacrifice, to support and defend the values, honor and privileges that make this country so unique and inspiring above all others.
Debbie Tam, 45, editor, New York
Patriotism is often confused with blind pride in one’s nation. Patriotism is love of one’s nation.
It is a love without conditions. It comes with the understanding that when you look back on history, there will be things that one can point to and be proud. It also comes with the understanding that when you look back on history, there will be things that were regrettable.
Patriotism knows that these moments bring growth and progress. That these moments are acknowledged as lessons learned and shape the nation to be what it is today and all it will be in the future. One can be frustrated, but patriotism understands that the work never ends – that the nation is always a work in progress.
Carolyn, 34, academic and mental health worker, Wisconsin
Patriotism is a word I fear. It is often used in speeches to inspire solidarity to some kind of ideal nation-state we call America. It is used to justify rigid sensibilities of who to love and who to hate. I have no love of country that would supersede my love and concern for the wellbeing of all people, that would supersede the cause of peace, that would supersede human dignity, human rights and our collective/shared stewardship of this planet.
I treat all people with respect. I advocate peace and environmental protection. I help those who have been disadvantaged and marginalized. Most importantly, I work on myself – my prejudgments, my own sense of peace, and I pay attention to how I show up in the everyday.
Contributions have been edited for length and clarity