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David Brooks on Walter Berns “Making Patriots”

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

David Brooks on Walter Berns’s Making Patriots


Reviewing the late Walter Berns’s 2001 book, Making Patriots, in the May 21, 2001 issue of the Weekly Standard, David Brooks commented that Berns wrestled with the problems of patriotism with wisdom and a penetrating insight. In examining and answering these challenges, Walter Berns, Brooks noted, “has done his part to help us make patriots.” Read Brooks’ full review below:


NOAH WEBSTER DIDN’T JUST PRODUCE A DICTIONARY; he also wrote one of the most influential school textbooks in American history. It was called An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, and it went through seventy-seven editions in the half century after its publication in 1785. It included famous patriotic speeches, the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington’s farewell orders to the army, selections from Swift, Pope, and Shakespeare, and a long section from Cato, Joseph Addison’s play about patriotic honor.

Webster was trying to acquaint children with their own country, to cultivate patriotic pride and to hold up American exemplars. He put a dictum from the French republican Count Mirabeau on the title page: “Begin with the infant in the cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.” Webster’s textbook was eventually supplanted by the McGuffey Readers, which sold 120 million copies between 1836 and 1920, and which performed the same cultural tasks. They also contained patriotic texts, classic readings, and bits of religious instruction (though fewer with each new edition).

But now all that is changed. Americans still love their country, but schools no longer set out to inculcate patriotism as they once did. Indeed, it’s not just schools. Across our society, patriotism is tongue-tied, and nationalism, after all the horrors of the twentieth century, is suspect. These days, in short, patriotism is a problem. Most people just find it easiest to avoid the whole issue. They may stand at the playing of the national anthem, and they may tear up during the Olympics, but they store their patriotic emotions in the attic of their hearts.

Walter Berns, the distinguished scholar of American government and now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has wrestled with the problems of patriotism in his wise and penetrating new book, Making Patriots. Nobody is born a patriot, Berns argues. Patriotic convictions have to be inculcated, and the country depends upon them for its continued greatness.

Berns starts his book with a description of a false patriotism, or at least a style of patriotism that is un-American. It is the patriotism of the Spartan, the citizen who idolizes the state and who has no other god but country. Berns recounts Plutarch’s story of a Spartan woman who is informed, after a battle, that all five of her sons were killed. “Base slave,” she snaps at the messenger, “Did I ask you that?” The slave informs her that Sparta won the battle. She runs to the temple and gives thanks to the gods.

No one believes that story could have possibly happened, but it illustrates the Spartan view of the loyalty expected from citizens, in which every private feeling was to be sacrificed for love of the state. American patriotism is the opposite of Spartan patriotism because the United States was founded with a declaration of individual rights. So, as Berns notes, in America, rights are primary and duties are secondary. “Defining a public-spirit curriculum for such a people is no easy task,” he adds.

It’s an especially difficult task in times of peace and prosperity, when we don’t feel our lives or property are under threat from any foreign menace, and when there are so many goodies to buy and enjoy. If you trade your stock on global exchanges, send your e-mail across the World Wide Web, and then retreat to your vacation spot in Aspen one year, Gstaad the next, what does America mean to you? Or to put it in a more high-flown way (as Berns does, echoing John Locke), “Why should such a man who institutes government in order to secure private rights, have any concern for anyone else? Why should he be public-spirited?”

Berns covers other threats to patriotism. If you feel that your government has treated your people shabbily, as many blacks do, why should you love your country? If you commit yourself to a universal God, why should you divide your commitments by also loving Caesar, the country you happen to have been born into in this world?

He answers these and other challenges to patriotism by emphasizing that America is not just any other nation. He cites Martin Diamond’s observation that the concepts “Americanism,” “Americanization,” and “un-American” have no counterparts in any other country or language. America is a set of beliefs about individual liberty and citizenship as much as it is a piece of land, beliefs expressed in our founding documents, and embodied in our institutions. If Americans don’t understand the concept of a “fatherland” — the nation as a parent from which we spring — we do understand and cherish the American creed.


Read the rest of David Brooks’ review.