Patriotism in the United States

Seminar Paper 2006 15 Pages

American Studies - Culture and Applied Geography


Table of Contents

0. Initial remarks

1. The American Creed
1.1 The forging of a nation
1.2 Sources of the Creed
1.3 Religion and the Creed

2. Patriotism Triumphant
2.1 The nature of patriotism
2.2 National symbols

3. A nation to live and die for

4. Conclusion

5. Fußnoten

Works Cited

0. Initial remarks

When on September 11th ruthless terrorists kidnapped civil airliners and steered them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing and injuring thousands of innocent people on the ground, it was for the first time after Pearl Harbor that Americans had been attacked on their home soil. The events caused all different kinds of feelings in U.S. citizens: anger, grief, anxiety, desperation. But first of all they resulted in patriotism. People wanted to show their loyalty to their country and demonstrate to foreign aggressors that their nation was strong. Many joined the armed forces in the wake of 9/11 and added to the chorus of voices that called for a war on terror, which was answered when in October 2001 American and British coalition troops invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden and with an intention of destroying the al-Qaeda network.

In this term paper I will give an overview of the special form of patriotism in the United States of America, highlighting only what I believe are the most pertinent aspects to support my thesis that patriotism was and still is an important factor in American society. I will try to elaborate on how U.S. patriotism developed through history and explain why it is practiced in a near-religious fashion even today.

1. The American Creed

1.1 The forging of a nation

“Begin with the infant in the cradle; let the first word he lisps be Washington.“

( Count Mirabeau, Reflections on the Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution)

This quote by Count Mirabeau, the famous French revolutionist, was used as an epigraph to the front page of what was to become the first patriotic textbook in the United States. Noah Webster's An American Selection of Lessons in Reading and Speaking, published in 1785, came to be widely acknowledged as a civic education guide and was read in numerous schools and households all across the country (it went through 77 editions). Not only did it contain excerpts from works written by the most famous American writers of the time but also political speeches, orations and state papers such as the Declaration of Independence (the colonies' emancipation from Great Britain of course representing a major event in U.S. which paved the way for national unity) or George Washington's farewell orders to the army. Like many other patriotic treatises that would follow, Webster's book conveyed both a basic knowledge and tried to instil in schoolchildren a feeling of pride in their country's merits.1

Webster primarily tried to show that there is a certain set of principles at the core of society that is both essential and characteristic for the self-conception of the United States. Among these principles are such values as liberty, egalitarianism (“of opportunity and respect, not result or condition“), individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.2 These are values that the vast majority of the American people can undoubtedly agree with, and they have therefore been subsumed under the collective term „American Creed.“ The word itself was popularized by Gunnar Myrdal in his book The American Dilemma in 1944 and developed out of the hypothesis that if you consider the heterogeneous demographic structure of the U.S., “Americans had to have something in common:

a social ethos, [or] a political creed.“3 In today's political science this assumption is no longer questioned and has been as widely accepted as the phenomenon itself. It is quite obvious that there is a pool of values shared by the majority of the people, a common conviction which transcends and to a certain extent even bridges the social disparity that exists in the United States today.

What is especially noteworthy about the Creed is its remarkable continuity: as a prevalent system of values it has proved to be more or less stable over time. Therefore it was never altered considerably. In fact the only time the Creed was challenged substantially was when the Southern states tried to justify slavery, which was a brutal violation of the Creed's fundamental principles. The Southern position was that the rights to be derived from the American Creed could merely be claimed by white people, not by blacks. The dispute over slavery (together with its moral and economic implications) and the introduction of the Fugitive Slave Act ultimately led to the secession of the Confederate States (CSA), which in turn prompted the Civil War.4 Not only had the foundation of American society been shaken by the impact of the war in a tangible way and for all American citizens to experience. But also did the contrast between the interests and values held by Northerners and Southerners finally became apparent in all its clarity and acuteness, putting the nation as a whole to a crucial test. For the first time after the hard-won War of Independence the future of the United States was at stake and it was only after another bloody war (with more than 600,000 killed) that the conflict came to an end. When in 1865 the Confederacy collapsed, the values of the American Creed as embraced by the Union were restored in the former Confederate States, enabling the United States to grow together again.

The events that led up to the Civil War show how important a common philosophy or ideology is for a country. And even more so, they demonstrate how decisive it is for a nation to stick to its principles not only in theory but in everyday life. From the 18th century up to the present day the American Creed (or Americans' Creed, as it is sometimes called) has not failed to influence American self-conception.

Many of the numerous wars the United States has waged in the past (including Iraq and Afghanistan) have been idealized as attempts to carry into the world the principles that are laid down in the Declaration of Independence.5 Other nations were to benefit from the same good that American citizens enjoyed. The main idea behind this is that all human beings, no matter which nationality, race, sex, age, or religion, should have the opportunity to live in freedom and peace, without fear of oppression or persecution, because they possess a number of unalienable rights given to them from birth. It is for this conviction that thousands of American soldiers have given their lives on the battlefields of Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, Baghdad, and elsewhere in the world.

1.2 Sources of the Creed

The American Creed was majorly influenced by the Enlightenment ideas, which were highly valued by parts of the American aristocracy in the mid-eighteenth century. This system of thought blended well with the principles of Anglo-Protestant culture which by then had already existed in American society for a long period of time. Significant aspects of the philosophy that has so characteristically shaped the American Creed and American national identity were (among other things) legal guarantees to all citizens as laid down in the Magna Carta Libertatum of 1215, concepts of natural and common law, and (what is still a major issue in today's political debate) the limitation of government authority. The ideas of equality and responsiveness of the government to the people, however, were added by the more radical Puritan sects of the English Revolution.6

1.3 Religion and the Creed

As a general rule, religion (that is, predominantly Christianity and Protestantism) has played an important role in the creation of the Creed; and even speaking of a creed in civic affairs indicates how closely the ecclesiastical and the secular domains in the United States are interwoven.7

This connection of church and state even on an ideological level has far-reaching consequences on how Americans see their country; it affects their stance towards governmental institutions and long-standing doctrines, and influences their view of the nation's role in the world.

The special role or “mission“ assigned to the U.S. was anticipated by John Winthrop as early as 1630 when (shortly before landing at Massachusetts Bay) in a speech to his fellow settlers he pointed out that “we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us."8

371 years later, on the evening of September 11th , 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush would slightly echo the words of Winthrop, stating the prominence of his country amid the community of states and declaring that “we're the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world“

which no-one whosoever would “keep [...] from shining.“9

America was meant to become and did become a worldwide paragon, or, to put it in a more religious way, it was considered by many to be the “New Jerusalem,“ as it is described in the only prophetic book of the bible, Revelation (21:1-3):

1 And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed

away; and there was no more sea. 2 And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down

from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a great

voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with

them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. 10

The settlement of the vast expanse of land in the West was accompanied by the hope and conviction that the New World would be a place where the vices of Old Europe (and more specifically,

Great Britain) could be overcome and left behind. And in this way it became a haven for many of those who were prevented from practicing their religion freely in their countries of origin.

The most prominent among religious groups, the Pilgrims, settled in what is now Massachusetts, only about thirty years after the first British attempt at colonizing the New World had failed.

They had emigrated from Great Britain and their temporary refuge in the Netherlands in order to escape religious persecution and it was only in 1620, when their ship, the Mayflower, reached the shore of the American continent, that they could finally feel secure.11 Consequently, the history of settlement itself was imbued with religious significance which would leave its impact on many generations to come.

As a people chosen by divine providence, Americans more than any other nation in the world would be required to fulfill a mission and their political representatives would have to take into account the special role assigned to the country.

So much for the religious mythology that has evolved around the U.S. over time. Fortunately, it is not for us to decide whether or not the blessing of God is with the people of the United States more than with any other nation, as of course it is impossible to prove that God is “pro-American,”

as Dr. Gerry Lower so humorously put it.12 The idealization and glorification of the country's past, however, is a tangible fact and it plays a decisive role in today's politics. Religious rhetoric and imagery are used by many American politicians to touch a chord with most citizens and help provide a semblance of sanctity to their speeches that would else be hard to achieve. Therefore, in many cases it is impossible to determine whether the religious allusions made in political texts and orations actually stem from the religious convictions of their authors or whether they are rather indebted to political calculation.13 Nevertheless, religious wording is widely accepted even today, because many Americans like to think of themselves as true believers and wish to see their own piety reflected in the speeches delivered by their political representatives. In a 1995 survey mentioned in Samuel P. Huntington's book Who Are We? 96 percent of all persons questioned said they believed in God or a universal spirit.14


1 Berns, Walter: Making Patriots. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2001, p. 134.

2 Huntington, Samuel P.: Who Are We? America's Great Debate. London: Free Press, 2005, p. 67.

3 ibid., quotation of Gunnar Myrdal

4 Brogan, Hugh: The Penguin History Of The USA. London: Penguin Books, 2001, p. 304

5 Crockatt, Richard: America Embattled - September 11, Anti-Americanism And The Global Order. London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2003, p. 49.

6 Huntington, Samuel P.: Who Are We? America's Great Debate. London: Free Press, 2005, p. 68.

7 ibid., p. 104.

8 Hanover College, Department of History: “John Winthrop: A Model.“ Aug. 1996. 20 Aug. 2006. < "http://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html">http://history.hanover.edu/texts/winthmod.html >

9 The White House: ”Statement by the President in Address to the Nation.“ Sept. 2001. 20 Aug. 2006. < "http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html">http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010911-16.html >

10 The Bible, Authorized Version (A.V.). Swindon: British and Foreign Bible Society., p. 1006

11 Brogan, Hugh: The Penguin History Of The USA. London: Penguin Books, 2001, p. 37

12. Lower, Gerry: “Are Americans a Chosen People?“ Feb. 23, 2003. 26 Aug. 2006.


13 Huntington, Samuel P.: Who Are We? America's Great Debate. London: Free Press, 2005, p. 104 f.

14 ibid., p. 102.\


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University of Freiburg – Englisches Seminar
Patriotism United States American Society Today




Title: Patriotism in the United States