<< The Body Politic

Bradley Lecture: Walter Berns on Patriotism

Monday, September 16th, 1996

By Walter Berns

Patriotism means love of country and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one’s life for it.

A Spartan woman had five sons in the army and was awaiting news of the battle. A Helot arrives; trembling, she asks him for news.
“Your five sons were killed.”
“Base slave, did I ask you that?”
“We won the victory.”
The mother runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods.

Rousseau, Emile, from Plutarch, Sayings of Spartan Women

[Inhabited largely by professors,] Burns Park is hardly a typical American middle-class neighborhood, as evidenced by the practice of one contentious colleague of flying the American flag on patriotic holidays so as, he claims, to annoy his neighbors.

Gorman Beauchamp, “Dissing the Middle Class”


Patriotism means love of country (patria, in the Latin) and implies a readiness to sacrifice for it, to fight for it, perhaps even to give one’s life for it. In the traditional, or Spartan, sense, patriots are those who love their country simply because it is their country–because it is their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his Democracy in America. It is a kind of filial piety.

But no one, not even a Spartan, is born loving his country; such love is not natural, but has to be taught, or inculcated, or somehow acquired. A person may not even be born loving himself–the authorities differ on this–but he soon enough learns to do so, and, unless something is done about it, he will continue to do so, and in a manner that makes a concern for country and fellow countrymen–or anyone other than himself–difficult if not impossible. The problem is as old as politics, and we Americans are not exempt from having to deal with it.

To deal with it, Socrates, the first political philosopher, proposed a comprehensive program of citizenship education. After describing its features–gymnastics for the body and music for the soul–and by way of persuading the young that it is natural for them to love and care for their city, he suggested (Republic, 414d-e) that they be told the following tale: that they only dreamed they were being educated by the rulers of the city; that they were born from the earth and were fully educated while in it; and that, when the job had been completed, the earth “sent them up”; and that, because this bit of earth is their mother and nurse, “they must plan for it and defend it, and they must think of the other citizens as brothers and born of this earth.”

It is hard to believe that anyone could credit this tale–Socrates himself calls it a lie–but it does serve to highlight this most fundamental of political problems. Besides, the Spartans seemed to believe it, or, to be more precise, something like it.

It is not for nothing that the word Spartan has come to be understood as synonymous with that of patriot. Every factor, demographic and geographic, and every detail of Spartan education, contributed to public spiritedness. Spartans were a homogeneous people, descended from the same ancestors, few in number, and inhabiting an area smaller than the District of Columbia; a people whose boys were trained, almost from the time of their birth, to be soldiers, to be courageous and obedient, to endure pain, heat and cold, and, of course, to be adept in the martial arts; whose girls were required to exercise naked (in public), with a view to producing sons capable of being soldiers (and daughters capable of breeding them); and whose puny and ill-formed infants were exposed in a chasm (the Apothetae) and left to die; a people who were not supposed to know the meaning of privacy, who took their meals at common public tables, eating the same bread and meat, simple and healthy fare, and all the while being instructed in public affairs; a people whose law allowed them, indeed encouraged them, to kill their Helots, their slaves who looked like them but, because they were not of the same Dorian race, were said to be not like them, and were a danger to them because they greatly outnumbered them; a people whose legendary lawgiver (Lycurgus), in an effort to do away with arrogance, envy, luxury, and especially avarice, ordered the confiscation of all gold and silver coins, replacing them with iron coins of great weight and little face value, thereby hoping to discourage the accumulation of wealth (because, as Plutarch says, to lay up an amount of considerable value would require “a pretty large closet, and, to remove it, nothing less than a yoke of oxen”), a currency that put an end to foreign trade and the importation of foreign luxuries (because the iron coins would not be accepted as legal tender by any other Greek city); a city whose few poets–only classical scholars can come up with their names–wrote mainly of wars and warriors; and, finally, a city that discouraged what would seem to be the natural human tendency to raise questions about right and wrong, or, as Plato’s Athenian Stranger puts it, “that does not allow any of the young to inquire which laws are finely made and which are not, but that commands all to say in harmony, in one voice from one mouth, that all the laws are finely made by the gods.”

Athens produced philosophers (Socrates, Plato), historians (Thucydides), and playwrights (Aristophanes, Sophocles); Sparta, a city that existed for upwards of five hundred years, produced Leonidas and the three hundred who fought and died at Thermopylae, patriots who loved their city more than they loved themselves, who saw themselves, and were seen by each other, as nothing but citizen-soldiers, who had no existence except as citizen-soldiers. As a modern commentator on the Spartan regime rightly says, “the subordination of the individual to the state has had no parallel in the history of the world.”

Still, Sparta has had its admirers, even in the modern world; Jean-Jacques Rousseau spoke well of it, and Samuel Adams once hoped to build a “Christian Sparta” in America. But nothing came of that, and nothing could have come of it. Sparta, a city that discouraged self-interest and self-gratification, could not possibly provide a model for America. Alexander Hamilton had this in mind when he said (in Federalist 8) that “the industrious habits of the people of the present day, absorbed in the pursuits of gain and devoted to the improvements of agriculture and commerce, are incompatible with the condition of a nation of soldiers.”

Besides, we are not few but many–even in our beginning our numbers were many times those of the Spartans–and we are no longer, if we ever were, a people descended from the same ancestors. In principle, whereas nobody could become a Spartan, anybody can become an American, and millions of people from around the world have done so, which helps to explain why that patriotic word “fatherland” has no place in our vocabulary. All we ask of them is that they pledge their allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands.

But nothing distinguishes us so sharply from Sparta and every other previously existing polity, or bears more directly on the issue of patriotism, than the principles governing our birth as a nation and then incorporated in the republic we ordained and established. These principles gave rise to an altogether new understanding of what it means to be a patriot.


When Hamilton said that our habits were incompatible with soldiering, he overlooked the fact that we had only recently fought and won the Revolutionary War, and that he, commander of the New York company of light infantry that played a decisive role in the final battle at Yorktown, was one of the heroes of that war; and that the man he most revered, George Washington, was a soldier; and that, along with John Marshall, the future Chief Justice, and the remnants of the army, he had been with Washington at Valley Forge during the miserable winter of 1788. Years later, in an address entitled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,” Abraham Lincoln referred to them as “the patriots of seventy-six.”

He could not have meant they were patriots in the traditional sense; they had not fought for “their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers.” They, like their fathers, had been born British subjects; they had made war on their erstwhile “British brethren,” who, as they said in the Declaration of Independence, had been “deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity.” Lincoln meant, and said, they were patriots because they had fought to demonstrate “the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves.”

Surely there is something unusual in what they did, something to cause us to honor their memory and follow their example. “If they succeeded,” Lincoln said, “they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time.” And so they have been; and so they might have hoped to be. They were not immune to the appeal of fame. As Hamilton said (in Federalist 72),”the love of fame [is] the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit.” Still, although the cynics among us may scoff at the idea, there is no reason to believe they did what they did for self-interested reasons. As Lincoln went on to say, self-interest may explain men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon, who used their talents and satisfied their ambition by destroying republics, but “the patriots of seventy-six” founded a republic. They were committed to the idea of liberty, and, therefore, to the idea of government by the people, and, unlike the Caesars, they were willing to put themselves among the people to be governed by a government of the people. Tocqueville may have had them in mind when he said that there have been men who loved liberty for its own sake. “A genuine love of liberty is [not] quickened by the prospect of material rewards,” he said, but by the desire to “speak, live, and breathe freely, owing obedience to no authority save God and the laws of the land.”

Our political institutions were based on the “proposition” that people were capable of governing themselves, but Lincoln knew that the truth of that proposition had still to be demonstrated. Demonstration depended on the perpetuation of the institutions, and that, in turn, depended on a new kind of patriotism. The patriots of seventy-six were moved to do what they did by their attachment to the abstract idea of liberty, but Lincoln doubted that those who came after them were capable of that sort of attachment.

I said at the beginning that patriotism is not natural, but has to be taught, inculcated, or somehow acquired; and the question is, how is this new patriotism to be taught, inculcated, or somehow acquired by later generations of citizens. There is a problem, or, as Lincoln said, it is problematical, because the god of the Declaration of Independence, “Nature’s God,” endowed men with rights; whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, imposed duties. Nature’s god created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself and, as John Locke said, take care of others only “when his own preservation comes not in competition”; whereas the God of the New Testament created a world in which men are commanded to love God and their neighbors as themselves. And what are these rights we possess by nature?  They are the rights to live, to live at liberty, free from the authority of others, and to pursue a happiness which each of us defines for himself. In other words, the Declaration of Independence assures us that we have a right to do what we are naturally inclined to do. With us, rights are primary and duties are secondary, derivative, and, even more to the point, conditional. When we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands, we mean the republic that secures our rights. Unlike the Spartans who, as I pointed out, were forbidden to question the justice of the laws, we are expected to love our country but to reserve judgment about its government. Designing a patriotic curriculum for such a people is no easy task.

Of course, when properly understood, the Declaration provides something in addition to a catechism of rights; after all, it was signed by men who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Except hypocritically, and the Founders were not hypocrites, such a pledge cannot be made by selfish, or simply self-interested men. Yet, on the face of the document, the rights are plain, whereas the duties have to be discovered. It is not strange that we should have an American Civil Liberties Union, and not an American Civil Duties Union. (Or, alas, not strange that we worry that the day will come when we have a country populated by Kitty Genovese’s neighbors–remember her?–rather than by good Samaritans.)

The Founders were aware of the danger that we would claim our rights, and even, as has proved to be the case, that we would convert many an interest into a right, and all this while neglecting our duties. That is why Madison and his Federalist colleagues resisted the demand made by Patrick Henry and other Anti-Federalists that a bill of natural rights, similar to that in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, be affixed to the Constitution, indeed, be attached to it as a preamble. And that is why Hamilton, in Federalist 84, was so emphatic in insisting that the Constitution itself is a bill of rights. Having established a free government–no simple task–they saw the necessity to gain support for it, and feared that that support would be jeopardized by giving rights, especially natural rights, pride of place in the Constitution. Herbert Storing made their point with a couple of questions. “Does a constant emphasis on unalienable natural rights foster good citizenship or a sense of community?” he asked. “Does a constant emphasis on the right to abolish government foster the kind of popular support that any government needs?”  As Storing said, the Federalists–led here by Madison–did not doubt that these first principles were true, that they may be resorted to, and that they provided the ultimate source and justification of government. Their point was that even a rational and well-constituted government needs and deserves a presumption of legitimacy and permanence, and, to quote Storing again, “a bill of rights that presses these first principles to the fore tends to deprive government of that presumption.” Patrick Henry disagreed, and, of greater consequence, so did Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson believed that the people had to be regularly reminded of first principles. In addition to agreeing with Henry on the need of a bill of natural rights, he advocated frequent conventions of the people for the purpose of altering the constitution or “correcting breaches of it.” Again, Madison acknowledged that this plan was “strictly consonant to republican theory,” as he put it in Federalist49, but he was, nevertheless, strongly opposed to it. He objected, he said, because every appeal to the people would carry an implication of some defect in the government, and “frequent appeals would, in great measure, deprive the government of that veneration which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest government would not possess the requisite stability.” The conclusion he drew applies just as well to another of Jefferson’s proposals, namely, that Locke’s treatises and Sidney’s discourses, as well as other works expounding the first principles of government, be made part of a university’s required curriculum. Madison granted that citizens ought to revere the laws, and that, in a nation of Jeffersons, this reverence could be inculcated by the voice of an enlightened reason. But such a nation, he said, “is as little to be expected as the philosophical race of kings wished for by Plato [and] in every other nation, the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices of the community on its side.” Lincoln, our greatest teacher of patriotism, reached the same conclusion.

He said there was a question as to whether our political institutions could survive, or, to use his term, could be perpetuated. The principles on which they rested had the support of “the patriots of seventy-six,” men capable of understanding the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” But it would be foolish to believe that the people generally were capable of such an understanding. Their attachment to our institutions would have to be a passionate, not a rational attachment. For more than fifty years, he said, their love of country and its institutions was inseparable from their hatred of Britain; and so long as the memory of the revolutionary war was fresh in their minds, the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation.” And thus, Lincoln concludes, “from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature, were either made to lie dormant, or to become the active agents in the advancement of the noblest of causes–that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty.” His task, or, as he put it, the task of “our WASHINGTON,” was to make freedom an object of our passions, or more precisely, an object of our love. For love is a passion, not a judgment arrived at by a process of ratiocination.

He returned to this theme when taking the presidential oath in 1861. Most of his First Inaugural is given over to an appeal to the southern states not to secede from the Union, but he knew they would; in fact, seven of them already had. He closed with this statement, words that can be spoken only rarely in the life of a nation, and then only by a Lincoln. “I am loth to close,” he said. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion”–note again this word–“though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

But he had told us in the Lyceum speech that memories, even memories stretching from the graves of patriots, grow cold as they grow old, and will in time fade altogether–unless, by means of a rhetoric so powerful, they could be made an imperishable part of the nation. Such a rhetoric would require a special occasion, and that occasion was more than likely to present itself. For the Civil War was coming, he knew that, and with it would come more patriot’s graves.

And when the occasion did present itself, Lincoln delivered the greatest speech in the English language, a speech of 272 words, delivered on a battlefield. “We are met on a great battlefield,” he said at Gettysburg, to dedicate a cemetery filled with the graves of patriots.

But who were the patriots who died at Gettysburg?  Did they include the soldiers of the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments who made the attack on Little Round Top, arguably the decisive action in what was surely the decisive battle of the war, as well as the soldiers of the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania, and 44th New York who defended it?  Confederate soldiers who, to take them at their word, were fighting for hearth and home, pro aris et focis, and were led by a general–Robert E. Lee, by name–who resigned his commission in the Army of the United States because, as he said, he could not raise his hand against his birthplace, his home, his children, as well as the soldiers fighting for the Union?

As it happened, this question was discussed, or at least raised, at a peace conference as the war was drawing to an end. Meeting at Hampton Roads, Virginia, Alexander Stephens–Alexander Hamilton Stephens–the vice president of the Confederacy, said to Lincoln, “I understand, then, that you regard us as rebels, who are liable to be hanged for treason.” Lincoln said that was so. “Well,” said Stephens, “we supposed that would have to be your view. But, to tell you the truth, we have none of us been much afraid of being hanged with you as President.” A pretty compliment, but well-deserved. As Lincoln was to say a month later in his Second Inaugural, “let us judge not that we be not judged.” He, at least, was reluctant to judge, and he was certainly not prepared to hang Robert E. Lee, for example, or Stephens (he and Stephens had been Whig colleagues in Congress in the 1840s), or even the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. They, too, were Americans.

In one respect, their loyalties were American; at least, they were the sort of loyalties Tocqueville encountered in the 1830s. He said Americans were more attached to their states than they were to the Union. “The Union,” he said, “is a vast body, which presents no definite object to patriotic feelings”; whereas the state “is identified with the soil; with the right of property and the domestic affections; with the recollections of the past, the labors of the present, and the hopes of the future.” The war was to change this; Lincoln saw to that. He used the occasion of the war to cause us to love the Union, and in the process we came to love him because he saved the Union and reminded us of what it stood for. While different, love and rational judgment are not incompatible or irreconcilable.

The difference can be seen in the way Americans react to the inscriptions carved in the walls of the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Prominent in the latter is Jefferson’s famous statement, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” For that, and similar statements, Jefferson can be respected, especially by intellectuals who fancy him their benefactor because they fancy themselves his progeny. But he deserves more than respect; as Lincoln said more than once, he deserves to be honored as the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. But his words alone, even those of the Declaration, are not likely to call forth our love, either for him or for the country he helped to found.

Now compare the Lincoln Memorial, with the Gettysburg Address and, perhaps especially, the final paragraph of the Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Americans are moved by these words, sometimes to tears; I have seen it happen. And it is right that they should be, for, as Madison said, even “the most rational government will not find it a superfluous advantage to have the prejudices [or the passions] of the community on its side.”

Without the war there would have been no Lincoln, as we remember him, no Lincoln Memorial, no Memorial Day–Decoration Day, when I was a boy–no parades down our main streets, in my case down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue, with ever-diminishing numbers of the Illinois veterans of that war in the lead, carrying, or being helped to carry, their regimental standards, and the bands playing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and other martial music; and no state song that we sang in elementary school, a song commemorating the war and its leading Illinois heroes, Lincoln and generals Grant and Logan.[1]  The Civil War, and the ceremonies remembering it, helped to make us patriots, and not only those of us from Illinois; this was largely Lincoln’s doing.

Of course, his was not the only influence on us. In the past, we celebrated Memorial Day on May 30, whatever day of the week that happened to be, Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, Washington’s on the 22nd, and Independence Day, which had not yet disappeared in a three-day weekend, on July 4; our public school teachers were not reluctant to tell us that America was the best nation on the face of the earth; and only a handful of us went on to the universities.


Jefferson proposed that professors teach Locke’s treatises and Sidney’s discourses, as well as other works, especially the Declaration of Independence, expounding the first principles of our government. But there is nothing peculiarly American about those principles. On the contrary, they are abstract and universal principles of political right, a product of political theory; any people might subscribe to them, and Jefferson himself expected that, in the course of time, every other people would do so.” All eyes are open, or opening, to the rights of man,” he said on the eve of the Declaration’s fiftieth anniversary. That hasn’t happened, but were it to happen–or, to coin the phrase popularized hereabouts by Frank Fukuyama, were history to come to an end–America would lose its distinctiveness and, along with it, any greater claim on the affections of its people.

But there are now professors who doubt that a nation founded on those principles is entitled to affection. They point out that America is founded on a social contract, entered into by naturally free and ungoverned individuals, and insist that, Lincoln to the contrary notwithstanding, nothing but the contract binds them to one another. They believe that it is natural for men to love something beyond themselves, and that it is most natural to love the community to which they naturally, rather than contractually, belong. This is multiculturalism, an idea that has spread from the universities to the secondary, and even the elementary, schools.

Thus, although the American Constitution speaks of “persons,” and, except for the two references to Indian tribes, never of groups, multiculturalists insist that the country really consists of little communities of African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Female-Americans (but for some reason, never Male-Americans), each of them deserving of recognition. They are said to have nothing in common, except that each demands to be recognized.

But recognized by whom or by what, other than the law of the country to which they commonly belong?  Even as they understand it, does that country not have a claim on their loyalties?  The question ought to give them pause, but they insist we are defined not by a common citizenship but by the separate communities to which we belong by virtue of our color, ethnicity, or sex. And it follows that loyalty to community takes preference over loyalty to country. I don’t know what part it plays in the lives or aspirations of the ordinary members of these various communities, but multiculturalism is popular in the schools and, as Clifford Orwin has pointed out, it is an entrenched reality in the universities.

It is not, however, the only pernicious idea being taught. Martha Nussbaum, formerly of Brown, where our Democratic presidents like to send their daughters, but now, alas, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, has recently mounted an attack on patriotism in favor of cosmopolitanism. “Patriotic pride,” she says, “is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve.” Justice and equality, she says, would be better served by persons “whose allegiance is to the worldwide community of human beings.” Thus, instead of being taught “that they are, above all, citizens of the United States,” students should be taught “that they are, above all, citizens of a world of human beings.” National boundaries are not only artificial, she says, but arbitrary barriers that blind us to our common humanity. “Why,” she asks, “should we think of people from China as our fellows the minute they dwell in a certain place, namely, the United States, but not when they dwell in a certain other place, namely China?”  Peoples differ, she admits, but they share “common aims, aspirations, and values.”[2]

But, in fact, we had no trouble whatever thinking of the Chinese students of Tiananmen Square as “our fellows,” and not merely because they erected a Statue of Liberty fashioned after ours. We could see immediately that they shared our “aims, aspirations, and values,” and, just as immediately, that the Chinese government did not. We were enabled to see these things precisely because we believe that all men are endowed with certain unalienable rights.

Nussbaum speaks of “the world community of justice and reason,” but no such community exists. Some eyes have opened to the rights of man, but by no means all of them. A part of the world today is what it was in 1945, when American soldiers came upon the concentration and death camps of Nazi Germany. Looking with horror at one of these camps, General Eisenhower was moved to say, “I want every American unit not actually in the front lines to see this place. We are told that the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, he will know what he is fighting against.”

The conclusion I would draw from all this is, I think, obvious and altogether appropriate. To paraphrase something said a long time ago about Sparta, “The United States has fallen to our lot; let us adorn it.” And love it.


1. The song, “Illinois,” was written in 1893 and made the official song of the state in 1925. Its first two verses are typical of the genre, singing of rivers, and “prairies verdant growing,” and the like; what makes it unique is its emphasis, in the last two verses, on the Civil War as the defining event in the history of the state:

When you heard your country calling, Illinois, Illinois,
Where the shot and shell were falling, Illinois, Illinois,
When the Southern host withdrew,
Pitting Gray against the Blue,
There were none more brave than you, Illinois, Illinois,
There were none more brave than you, Illinois.

Not without thy wondrous story, Illinois, Illinois,
Can be writ the nation’s glory, Illinois, Illinois,
On the record of thy years,
Abra’am Lincoln’s name appears,
Grant, and Logan, and our tears, Illinois, Illinois,
Grant, and Logan, and our tears, Illinois.

2. All these quotations are taken from a new book, For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, by Martha C. Nussbaum, with respondents, and edited by Joshua Cohen, and published by Beacon Press.

Walter Berns is a resident scholar at AEI. Painting by JeanJacquesFrancois Le Barbier.