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Encouraging Patriotism through Stories

By Amy A. Kass



In November 2011, Amy A. Kass spoke to the Washington, DC chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

My topic today is American patriotism and how to promote it. By patriotism I mean love for and attachment to the United States and the American way of life. But the patriotism I am interested in promoting goes deeper than a thoughtless, chest-thumping, chauvinism. Like the Daughters of the American Revolution, I am interested in producing citizens who are thoughtfully and knowledgeably attached to our country, devoted to its ideals, and eager to live an active civic life. This is the goal of the new anthology, What So Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech and Song, which I co-edited with my husband Leon Kass and colleague Diana Schaub. I will first tell you a little about the strategy and structure of the volume. Then, because I believe that a concrete example is generally better than an abstract argument, I will talk about one of our selections, a story that illustrates particularly well both the importance of our goal and the difficulties it faces.

The theme of our book is American identity, American character, and American citizenship. Addressing hearts as well as minds, it exploits the soul-shaping powers of story, speech, and song, in an effort to make Americans more appreciatively aware of who they are as citizens of the United States. We intend the volume as a contribution to civic education: for a long time, the working title was “Making Citizens.” But our approach to making citizens differs from the more common approaches now practiced. Many people, concerned about the state of civic literacy and American identity, have been developing programs of instruction that emphasize American history, political thought, and civic institutions. Another approach, emphasizing learning by doing, sends students into the community to perform services for others, in the hope that the students will thereby develop the habit of serving. But these worthy efforts by themselves will not produce love of country or the capacity to think deeply about the character and purposes of the country in which we live and serve.

Developing robust and committed American citizens is a matter of both the heart and the head. Like all building of character, it requires educating our moral imaginations, sentiments, and habits of heart—matters displayed in but also nurtured by great works of imaginative literature. Works of fiction speak most immediately, engagingly, and movingly to the hearts and minds of readers of all ages. They furnish the imagination, educate the sentiments, and, by giving us characters to identify with, provide concrete mirrors for self-discovery and self-examination. For these reasons, we have adopted a literary approach to making citizens, an approach centering on stories—supplemented by great public speeches and patriotic songs.

The anthology comprises 74 stories, speeches, and patriotic songs, all by American authors. They are grouped in 6 chapters, each addressing a crucial subject: (1) National identity, and why it matters; (2) the American creed—liberty, equality, individual enterprise, religious freedom and toleration; (3) the American character, a chapter that displays the strengths and weaknesses of individuals who are informed by the American creed; (4) the virtues of a robust citizenry, among them, self-command, law-abidingness, courage, civility, compassion, public-spiritedness, and reverence; (5) the (sometimes competing) goals of civic life—lifting the floor, elevating the ceiling, and preserving and perpetuating what we hold dear; and, finally, (6) how to make a national one out of the multicultural many.

Since the book has been published, we have been preparing adjunct materials for a digital-learning venture using some of its selections: a ten-part series on “The Meaning of America,” each part on a particular story to illustrate the American character or one of the requisite virtues. We have prepared study guides for each session, and we have video-taped conversations among the editors with invited moderators to show how these stories might be studied and examined with a view to revealing the American soul. And we are currently in the process of developing a similar series on American holidays.

The relationship between citizenship and patriotism is rather complicated. Citizenship is first of all a legal and political status, relating each citizen to the body politic. In the United States, it is defined, by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, in this minimalist way: A citizen of the United States is any person “born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The Constitution speaks of our rights as citizens; it never mentions any of our duties or what it takes to defend those rights. Legal citizens of the United States may enjoy the privileges and immunities of citizenship at little personal cost, and without any obligation to serve or even love their country.

Yet even for us, citizenship, in a fuller sense, is, as Walter Berns has written, “a sentiment or state of mind, an awareness of sharing an identity with others to whom one is related by nationality, if not by blood, a sense of belonging to a community for which one bears some responsibility. In a word, citizenship implies public-spiritedness, and it is in this sense that it cannot be taken for granted; like patriotism, it has to be cultivated.”

But what is to be the basis of this sentiment, attachment, and public-spiritedness? What is to be the foundation of American patriotism? This is an especially complex matter for a Republic, like ours, which was founded as—and remains—a nation not of birth, lineage, or inherited ways, but a nation of ideas. It was the first nation to define itself in terms of certain teachings and aspirations, what may be thought of as the creed mentioned earlier—equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; freedom of religion and religious toleration; majority rule; minority rights; and the rule of law. This means that anyone who embraces these principles—and swears allegiance to the Republic founded on them—can become an American, and millions of people from every corner of the globe have done so. One can move to France or China but one will never become French or Chinese; but anyone from anywhere can become an American.

But for this reason, attachment to the United States cannot easily rely on patriotic emotions arising from familial, tribal, and religious ties or from traditional bonds to place, language, music, and inherited cultural norms. America, according to a patriotic song, may be the “land where our fathers died,” but we never refer to it as the fatherland (patria) or motherland, as do Germans or Russians regarding their native land. What takes the place of such deep sentimental attachments? Is acceptance of certain basic political or philosophical principles enough to make citizens willing to serve and sacrifice for their country in time of need?

Complicating the difficulty is the fact that America embraces people from all over the world, who come with different ways, speak different languages, and practice different religions. We have never had an established national church, or even an articulated national morality. Our tolerance, and even encouragement, of ethnic and religious pluralism is a great national strength, but it also poses a challenge for creating a deep national bond and spirit. As a result, our emotional ties to our separate ways and beliefs often exceed ties to our common national whole—a practice that has been encouraged by the abandonment of the ideal of assimilation and the image of the melting pot, in favor of the ideal of diversity and the image of the salad bowl. Under these circumstances our identification as Americans can at best be “hyphenated,” not unqualified.

How, then, can we produce a sense of national identity and patriotic sentiments and attachments? Studying our documents and learning our history can surely help. But stories are, in our view, even better. We need to furnish our imaginations with true stories of American heroes, stories that inspire emulation and the pride of kinship with those who have nobly gone before—the stories of Washington and Lincoln, of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington . . . . But we also can benefit greatly from fictional stories that not only inspire but also instruct, at their best because they shed light on the complexities of our situation and educate the sentiments in a richer and more sophisticated way. To move past simple-minded jingoism, we need to improve the mind even when we seek to attach the heart.

The two stories that are the bookends of our anthology were especially chosen with these purposes in mind, precisely because they explicitly raise the question of the basis of American national attachment: Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country,” and Willa Cather’s “The Namesake.” The closing selection tells the story of how an American sculptor, son of an expatriate and himself living in Paris, comes to be “reborn” as an American patriot, as a result of discovering the patriotic devotion of his namesake, who died in the Civil War at the age of 17 while carrying the Union flag into battle. Our opening selection, which I will expand upon, is a moving account of what it is like to live without any national attachment.

Edward Everett Hale’s “The Man without a Country” was published during the terrible days of Civil War, in 1863, the year President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. A piece of historical fiction, it tells the story of one Philip Nolan, whose obituary—in the same year—prompted the narrator, Fred Ingham, to tell the world of Nolan’s sad story. Its plot line is simple enough.

Seduced, “body and soul,” by the charm and grand vision of Aaron Burr, young Philip Nolan, an ambitious artillery officer in the “Legion of the West,” became a Burr accomplice. He was tried and found guilty of treason. When the president of the court asked him, at the close of the trial, whether he wished to say anything to show that he had always been faithful to the United States, Nolan cried out, in a fit of frenzy,—

‘D—n the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!’”

His judges, half of them veterans of the Revolutionary War, decided to give him precisely what he asked for: From that moment, September 23, 1807, until his dying day, May 11, 1863—56 years later—Nolan spent the rest of his life at sea, transferred from one U.S. Navy ship to another, never again setting foot on American soil and not before his dying day hearing anything at all about the United States. Yet, during—and perhaps because of—his enforced separation from his native land, Nolan’s attitude toward her would change dramatically. At the end of his life, as the narrator Ingham learns, it was discovered that Nolan had converted his stateroom into a shrine of the United States, complete with a national map drawn from memory and a Presbyterian Bible bookmarked to the page containing a prayer for the President of the United States. And when he died, Nolan was pressing to his lips his father’s badge of the Order of Cincinnati (bestowed on those who had fought in the War for Independence). The bulk of Hale’s story—and Ingham’s narration— powerfully shows how his transformation comes about.

Of the five or six episodes that show Nolan’s growing remorse for his renunciation of, and his increasing interest in, his American identity, one especially stands out, for in it we also hear Nolan speak of his longings for home and country. It takes place around 1820, shortly after the Slave Trade Act was passed. Ingham, our narrator and then a young naval officer, happened to be aboard the ship then carrying Nolan, when it overhauled a dirty little schooner having slaves on board. An American party was sent aboard the schooner to liberate the slaves, but Vaughn, the officer in charge, frustrated because language barriers prevented him from being understood, sends for Nolan, who has knowledge of the needed Portuguese, to interpret. Nolan arrives accompanied by Ingham.

As Nolan came on deck, Vaughan desperately commanded him to tell the screaming Africans that they are free, and that the rascals that enslaved them would be hanged. Nolan did so and there followed a yell of delight, as they rushed first to kiss Nolan’s feet, then to worship Vaughan. Well pleased, Vaughan further instructs Nolan to tell them that he will take them all to Cape Palmas. But this did not answer so well. “Ah, non Palmas,” they yelled and proposed instead other expedients in very voluble language. Vaughan, disappointed at the result of his liberality, again asked Nolan to translate.

The drops stood on poor Nolan’s white forehead, as he hushed the men down, and said,—

“They say ‘Not Palmas.’ They say, ‘Take us home, take us to our own country, take us to our own house, take us to our own pickaninnies and our own women.’ One says he has an old father and mother, who will die, if they do not see him, another that he left his people all sick, and paddled down to Fernando to beg the white doctor to come and help them, and that these devils caught him in the bay just in sight of home, and that he has never seen anybody from home since then. And another says,” choked out Nolan, “that he has not heard a word from his home in six months, while he has been locked up in an infernal barracoon.”

Vaughan grew gray himself while Nolan struggled through this interpretation. Even the Africans stopped howling, as they saw Nolan’s agony, and Vaughan’s almost equal agony of sympathy. As quick as he could get words, Vaughan said,—

“Tell them yes, yes, yes; tell them they shall go to the Mountains of the Moon, if they will. If I sail the schooner through the Great White Desert, they shall go home!”

And after some fashion Nolan said so. And then they all fell to kissing him again, and wanted to rub his nose with theirs.

But he could not stand it long; and getting Vaughan to say he might go back, he beckoned me [Ingham] down into our boat. As we lay back in the stern-sheets and the men gave way, he said to me,—

“Youngster, let that show you what it is to be without a family, without a home, and without a country. And if you are ever tempted to say a word or to do a thing that shall put a bar between you and your family, your home, and your country, pray God in His mercy to take you that instant home to His own heaven. Stick by your family, boy; forget you have a self, while you do everything for them. Think of your home, boy; write and send, and talk about it. Let it be nearer and nearer to your thought, the farther you have to travel from it; and rush back to it, when you are free, as that poor black slave is doing now. And for your country, boy,” and the words rattled in his throat, “and for that flag,” and he pointed to the ship, “never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though the service carry you through a thousand hells. No matter what happens to you, no matter who flatters you or who abuses you, never look at another flag, never let a night pass but you pray God to bless that flag. Remember, boy, that behind all these men you have to do with, behind officers, and government, and people even, there is the Country Herself, your Country, and that you belong to Her as you belong to your own mother. Stand by Her, boy, as you would stand by your mother, if those devils there had got hold of her today!”

Frightened to death by his calm, hard passion, Ingham blundered out that he would, “by all that was holy.” Then adds: “He hardly seemed to hear me; but he did, almost in a whisper, say,—‘O, if anybody had said so to me when I was of your age!’”

Since the story’s first appearance, it has moved countless readers to patriotic sentiment. Until sometime after World War II, it was a standard reading in American English texts, taught to elementary and high school students precisely for its patriotic point. I find the story exceedingly moving, even on the fifth and tenth reading. Yet I continue to be puzzled by the very moving passage just cited, and I keep changing my mind about a crucial question: To what extent is Nolan’s longing for his homeland a patriotically American longing, a longing for what is special about the United States? How, if at all, does it differ from the longing that might be felt by a German or a Russian for the fatherland or motherland, or, within the story, the longing for home of the newly liberated African slaves? Nolan, in his speech to Ingham, blurs together mother, home, and country, all to be treasured because they are one’s own, not because they are good or because of what they stand for. There appears to be no mention here of the American ideals of freedom and equality, or of the nation’s political institutions that are devoted to promoting and safeguarding these ideals. In Nolan’s final appeal to Ingham, as noted, he insists that “you belong to your Country as you belong to your mother,” and he exhorts him to “stand by her . . . as you would stand by your mother, if those devils had got hold of her to-day.” This looks to me, quite frankly, like the appeal to blood and soil, and the love of your own, that belongs more to the patriotic appeals of European nations rather than one founded on universal principles and welcoming immigrants into citizenship who do not share birth on native soil.

Yet, and on the other hand, Nolan has just participated in the emancipation of slaves, under the command of the United States Navy sailing under the American flag, under a law upholding freedom and equality approved by the representatives of the American people. And Nolan himself has been placed, anachronistically, in the role of Abraham Lincoln, as it were, anticipating the deed of the Great Emancipator. And whereas the freed slaves beg to be re-united with their parents, wives, and children, and speak not at all about country or flag, Nolan’s longings for home, as we hear in his speech to Ingham and see later in his stateroom, are also for the homeland. Can we infer that he is longing also for what the homeland stands for?

However one decides about Hale’s story, the issue here raised remains crucial for the larger educational task in which we are engaged: What exactly is required to attach the affections of American citizens to the American polity? Is our distinctive and distinctively worthy national creed sufficient to secure our allegiance: “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all”? Or do we need in addition those atavistic primal attachments of Alma Mater, soil, and ties of blood and kindred ancestry—the love of our own because it is our own—to make patriots out of mere rights-enjoying citizens?

Happily for us Americans, it may be easier than for people elsewhere to live out an answer to this question. That answer was provided by Abraham Lincoln in his eulogy of Henry Clay: “Mr. Clay’s predominant sentiment, from first to last was a deep devotion to the cause of human liberty . . . . With him, this was a primary and all controlling passion. . . . He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country; and he burned with a zeal for its advancement, prosperity and glory, because he saw in such, the advancement, prosperity and glory, of human liberty, human right and human nature. He desired the prosperity of his countrymen partly because they were his countrymen, but chiefly to show to the world that freemen could be prosperous.”

How do we produce citizens who can share the sentiments and emulate the example of Henry Clay? Our anthology and our website are modest efforts in that direction. I hope you will read our materials and join us in our efforts, as I am delighted to be able to join in yours.

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