Commentary

America’s Particular Patriotism

By Edward L. Hudgins
July 3, 2000
With individuals voluntarily taking up arms to secure the liberties that the new nation promised them, America had an inspirational start. But the country’s real glory lies in the spectacle of millions of citizens working hard to make happy lives for themselves, creating in the process the most prosperous land of opportunity the world has ever known.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Americans have seen themselves and their country as possessing a special moral dignity. Americans have viewed their country as an exemplar for the world, as a shining city on a hill that stands to inspire and attract millions of like-minded individuals. But what is the basis of America’s particular patriotism and civic virtues? Why have millions loved this country enough to fight and die for its preservation?

It is first necessary to discuss the nature of any value, and perhaps it is appropriate to start with something that millions of Americans own or aspire to own: a house. When something is of special importance to you, you take extraordinary measures to acquire and maintain it. Your future house is worth the price of your current entertainment and leisure, so you forgo lots of less important luxuries such as dinners at pricey restaurants, a new car, or an expensive vacation. Whether you succeed in securing a house is inexorably tied to your virtues. Do you have the self-discipline and dedication to resist immediate temptations, to overcome indolence, to struggle for something that you value above other things? And, of course, if you succeed, you win a triple benefit: 1) you will have your house; 2) you will create and strengthen in your own soul those virtues necessary to secure the house; and 3) you will consequently enjoy a deserved pride and a sense of achievement.

To acquire and maintain nonmaterial values also requires work and tests our virtues. A marriage and a family certainly fall into that category. Parents must prioritize to raise a child from a cute but crying and helpless baby to a self-sufficient adult one can be proud of. Forgoing some luxuries along the way is only a seeming self-sacrifice, for parents keep the best for themselves: a wonderful family, strong moral character and the knowledge that they did their best.

So what about the United States? Why should we value it so highly? The answer is found in our country’s creed, the Declaration of Independence. We are “endowed … with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” What a wonderful statement! The government will accord each of us the respect and freedom to live our lives as we see fit; indeed, protecting such freedoms is the purpose of government.

And what will be our natural feelings toward the institutions meant to preserve liberty? It is hoped, a proper patriotism. We appreciate this republic because it protects us from violence and otherwise leaves us alone to build our houses, raise our families and live our own lives. And living in such a system fosters in us certain civic virtues. For example, we are tolerant of our fellow citizens, even if their ways of living are not our ways. We try to solve our problems, meet life’s challenges, enjoy ourselves and flourish in private institutions like families, churches, the Freemasons, the PTAs, bowling leagues and book clubs. A glory of the American system is that it makes private pursuits and private virtues work for the good of the county, because the country is not principally the government but rather the private institutions and individuals that compose it.

Unfortunately, in the 20th century the government became more master than servant and now treats us like subjects who cannot tie our shoes without its help. And the more government taxes and controls us, the more it undermines the civic institutions that constitute this country, which in turn erodes the moral character and civic virtues in which our patriotism is rooted. Why love a regime that plunders rather than protects us?

Many Americans now understand the errors of the past and appreciate that this republic, for which our Founders risked their lives, fortunes and sacred honor, is truly a valuable treasure worth preserving. In the future, only a restoration of individual liberty, with its challenges and opportunities, will guarantee a strong, moral America.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.