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American Patriotism

1,223 words

Childe Hassam, The Flag Outside Her Window, April (Aka Boys Marching By), 1918

Translated by Guillaume Durocher.

Editor’s Note:

Taken from Alexis de Tocqueville, De la Démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, 1986), vol. 1, “Public Spirit in the United States,” 353-56. The title is editorial. 

There exists a love for the fatherland which has its source principally in that unthought, disinterested, and undefinable feeling, which binds man’s heart to the places where he was born. This instinctive love is synonymous with the taste for old customs, with respect for ancestors and memories of the past; those who feel it cherish their country as one loves the paternal household. They love the tranquility which they enjoy; they value the peaceful habits they have acquired; they cling to the memories which it presents them, and they even find some sweetness in living there in obedience. Often this love for the fatherland is exalted further by religious zeal, and then one sees it achieve wonders. It is itself a kind of religion; one does not reason, one believes, one feels, one acts. There have been peoples who, in a certain way, personified their fatherland, and saw it in the prince. They therefore transported into him a part of the feelings which make up patriotism; they took pride in his triumphs, and they were proud of his power. There was a time, under the old monarchy, when the French felt a kind of joy in being subjected without recourse to the arbritariness of the monarch, and said with pride: “We live under the most powerful king in the world.”

Like all thoughtless passions, this love of country pushes one to great short-lived efforts rather than to continuity of efforts. After having saved the State in a time of crisis, it often lets it wither in the peace.

When peoples are still simple in their customs and firm in their beliefs; when society rests gently upon an ancient way of things, whose legitimacy is not contested, one sees reign this instinctive love of the fatherland.


Childe Hassam, Rainy Day Fifth Avenue, 1916

There is another more rational than this; less generous, less ardent perhaps, but more fertile and more lasting; this one is born of enlightenment; it develops thanks to the laws, it grows with the exercise of rights and it ends, in a sense, by becoming synonymous with personal interest. A man understands the influence which the well-being of the country has on his own; he knows that the law allows him to contribute to producing this well-being, and he takes an interest in the prosperity of his country, first as something which is useful to him, and then as something which is his own work.

But occasionally happens, in the lives of peoples, a time when the old customs are changed, the mores destroyed, the beliefs shaken, the prestige of memories dispelled, and where, however, enlightenment has remained incomplete and political rights poorly guaranteed or restrained. Men then only see their fatherland in a weak and dubious light; they place it no longer in the soil, which has become in their eyes an inanimate land, nor in the customs of their forefathers which they have been taught to consider a yoke; nor in religion, which they doubt; nor in the laws which they do not make, nor in the legislator which they fear and despise. They see it nowhere then, no more under its own traits than under any other, and they withdraw to a narrow and unenlightened egotism. These men escape prejudices without recognizing the empire of reason; they have neither the instinctive patriotism of the monarchy, nor the considered patriotism of the republic; but they have stopped between the two, amidst confusion and misery.

What is to be done in such a state? To step backward. But peoples no more return to the feelings of their youth, than men return to the innocent tastes of their infancy; they can miss them, but never make them be born again. One must then continue to march forward and hasten to join together in the eyes of the people individual interest and national interest, for disinterested love of the fatherland is fleeing with no return.

Childe Hassam, "The Fourth of July, 1916." 1916

Childe Hassam, The Fourth of July, 1916, 1916

Assuredly, far be it from me to claim that to arrive at this result one must grant all of a sudden the exercise of political rights to all men; but I say that the most powerful means, and perhaps the only one which remains to us, to interest men in the destiny of their fatherland, is to have them participate in its government. Nowadays, civic spirit seems to me inseparable from the exercise of political rights; and I think that henceforth we shall see increase or decrease in Europe the number of citizens in proportion to the extension of these rights.

Whence comes it that in the United States, where the inhabitants arrived yesterday on the soil they occupy, where they brought neither customs nor memories; where they meet each other for the first time without knowing each other prior; where, in a word, the instinct for the fatherland can barely exist; why is it that each interests himself in the interests of his town, of his county, of his entire State as though they were his own? It is that each, in his own sphere, takes an active part in the government of society.

The man of the people, in the United States, has understood the influence which the general welfare has on his happiness, an idea so simple yet so little known by the people. What’s more, he has accustomed himself to looking upon this prosperity as his own work. He sees then in public fortune his own, and he works for the good of the State, not only out of duty or pride, but I daresay almost by avariciousness.

One does not need to study the institutions or history of the Americans to know the preceding truth, the customs indicate this enough. The American, taking part in everything which is done in this country, believes he has an interest in defending everything which is criticized; for it is not only the country one is attacking then, but himself: one also sees his national pride resorting to all the artifices and stooping to all the puerilities of individual vanity.

There is nothing more bothersome living habit than this irritable patriotism of the Americans. The foreigner is happy to praise a great deal in their country; but he would like to be allowed to criticize something, and that is he absolutely forbidden to do.

America is then a country of liberty, where, to not hurt anyone’s feelings, the foreigner must speak freely neither of private citizens, nor of the State, nor of the governed, nor of the governing, nor of public endeavors, nor of private endeavors; of ultimately nothing that one encounters there, except perhaps the climate and the soil; and one even finds Americans ready to defend one and the other, as though they had participated in making them.

Nowadays, one must know how to take sides and dare to choose between the patriotism of all and the government of the few, because one cannot at the same time have the social strength and activity of the first, with the guarantees of tranquility which sometimes provides the latter.

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  1. Ragnvaldr
    Posted July 13, 2016 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

    Seems there wasn’t a single concept in the article I could identify with, as if reading about an age long gone by…

    • Sandy
      Posted July 15, 2016 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell

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