What Is Patriotism?


Dear Daughters,

In the context of current events, I decided to post some brief thoughts on patriotism. Not my thoughts. Those of William Livingston.

Never heard of William Livingston?

That’s a shame. Livingston was a lawyer who briefly led the New Jersey militia during the American Revolution, then served as the state’s first governor, then helped frame the US Constitution. And before the revolution, he masterfully articulated the 18th-Century ideal of patriotism–the version on which our nation’s founders drew, before we even really had a nation.

We First (Or at Least Second)

Livingston put his patriotic pen to paper in a series of essays published in The Independent Reflector. He wrote:

He is a Patriot who prefers the Happiness of the Whole, to his own private Advantage . . . He is a Patriot, the ruling Object of whose Ambition, is the public Welfare: whose Zeal, chastised by Reflection, is calm, steady and undaunted . . . Whom no partial Ties can prevail on to act traitorously to the Community, and sacrifice the Interest of the Whole to that of a Part.

A true patriot, Livingston insists, is no narrow partisan or self-promoter. On the contrary, a true patriot pursues nothing less than the good of the whole community, setting aside personal and merely local interests. In so doing, Livingston argues, a true patriot answers humanity’s second highest calling, after only “the Duty we owe the Supreme Being.”

Livingston wasn’t naïve. He didn’t suppose that such selfless nonpartisanship would come easily. Like many of America’s founders, he recognized that ambition and factional strife come naturally to humans. But he also recognized that we are socially interested as well as self-interested creatures, and he regarded a willingness to work for the common good (to fight the good fight”) as essential to patriotism.

Head, Heart, and Hands

Today, just about everyone defines patriotism as “love of country.” But for Livingston:

Merely to love the Public, to wish it well, to feel for it, in all its Vicissitudes, is not sufficient . . . To exemplify our Love for the Public, as far as our Ability and Sphere of Action will extend, is true Patriotism . . . I go still farther. Whoever is unstudious of the public Emolument, who denies it a Share of his thinking Hours, and refuses to exert his Head, his Heart, and his Hands in its Behalf, is a Foe to Society.

Love without action isn’t enough. Patriotism requires love and labor. Mental labor, too–“thinking Hours” that lead to constructive efforts as opposed to knee-jerk responses.

Determining exactly what should count as the “the public Welfare” may take negotiation, and that’s okay. Livingston expects disagreement among patriots. He even leaves room for a patriotism of protest, noting that if and when the country’s leaders go awry, the patriot “mourns for their Vices, and exerts his Abilities to work a Reformation.”

Patriots don’t agree on everything. But what they all do, in Livingston’s view, is serve. Again, “To exemplify our Love for the Public, as far as our Ability and Sphere of Action will extend, is true Patriotism.”

Fitting Service

Livingston exemplified his own love for the public through both military and government service. But as another early American patriot, Thomas Paine, pointed out, the term “patriot” has never been restricted solely to people who serve in those ways. Paine wrote: “Nature, in the arrangement of mankind, has fitted some for every service in life: were all soldiers, all would starve and go naked, and were none soldiers, all would be slaves.”

We rightly honor the men and women who serve in our military, but we should recognize that there are also many other ways people serve–as first responders, teachers, health care and social workers, volunteers, neighborhood watchers, community organizers, civic group leaders (and followers), and donors of money, time, blood, sweat, and tears. According to both Livingston and Paine, all of these types of service count as patriotic: indeed, to work deliberately for the good of the community, because you care about its well-being, is the essence of patriotism. Each of us can play a role, and we’re all called upon to do so.

We First (Reprise)

In closing, it’s worth noting that the two most important phrases in our nation’s two most important founding documents both begin with one little word:

  • We hold these truths to be self-evident …”
  • “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …”

The way to build a better future, now as when these documents were written, comes down to this same we. We have to be willing to exert our heads, our hearts, and our hands on each other’s behalf. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.



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