What is Patriotism?

COMMENTARY Conservatism

What is Patriotism?

Apr 11, 2017 3 min read

Author and weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal

America was—perhaps is—a big, lonely country, huge and sprawling, and was from the beginning full of disparate people from different places with different beliefs. Photo by Ian Schneider

On Dec. 9, 1998, Peggy Noonan spoke at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., on the topic of patriotism. The follow is an excerpt from that lecture that was also included in “Leadership for America: The Principles of Conservatism.”

What is patriotism? We all know what it is. It is love of country. It is pride in what a country stands for and was founded on. It is the full-throated expression of that love and that pride. 

America has been throughout its history an especially patriotic country. I believe the reason has to do with a particular assumption, a particular habit of mind. Our patriot fervor was the result of the old and widespread belief in the idea of American exceptionalism—the idea that America was a new thing in history, different from other countries. 

Other nations had evolved one way or another: evolved from tribes, from a gathering of the clans, from inevitabilities of language and tradition and geography. But America was born—and born of ideas: that all men are created equal, that they have been given by God certain rights that can be taken from them by no man, and that those rights combine to create a thing called freedom. They were free to pursue happiness, free to worship God, free to talk and speak in public of their views, and to chose their leaders. 

American patriotism was the repetition, reaffirmation, and celebration of our founding ideas, and it gave rise to a brilliant tradition of celebration, and of celebration's symbols: the flag—that beautiful flag; the parades and bands and bunting; Betsy Ross, Uncle Sam, the tradition of patriotic speeches, the reading aloud of the Declaration of Independence; the sparklers like the candles on a birthday cake. 

And all these symbols come together on the big birthday: July 4, the day America was born.

All this has served America well. This celebration of our continued adherence to ideas made those ideas new again, young again, vital again, so that in each generation they were continued and reborn. Jefferson famously said the tree of liberty must be water by the blood of patriots. But it receives vital water as well from the tears, the honest tears, of those moved at the thought of the blessings of our country, the blessings of the freedoms guaranteed here. 

Our patriotism has been beneficial in other ways. America was—perhaps is—a big, lonely country, huge and sprawling, and was from the beginning full of disparate people from different places with different beliefs. In a big, disparate, far-flung country, our patriotic feeling was one of the unifying forces that kept us together, that bound us in shared agreement.  

Love of country was one of the things the wild agnostic mountain man of the West had in common with the temperance-loving schoolmarm of Philadelphia. Pride in America was shared by common men and intellectuals, by the Irish immigrant of Hell's Kitchen and the high WASP patrician of old Boston. They had something in common: they loved America. This feeling has helped sustain us and lift us up. 

We have all had some patriotic memories. Here is one of mine. July 4, 1976, was the bicentennial of the United States, a great day. And I, in my excitement, spent a wonderful day that began in Boston, where I lived. I worked the overnight those days at an all-news radio station, so I began the late evening of July 3 in the darkness with a tape recorder, gathering sounds of the Boston events—the re-enactment of the battle at the Concord Bridge, rifle fire in the darkness. 

And as I walked in the darkness in streets full of young people, it was so festive and moving. I went back to the station and filed, and the next morning, a day off, I started in Boston at dawn on July 4, 1976, in the North end of Boston, in front of the church whose steeple Paul Revere looked to for the lanterns, one if by land and two if by sea. 

Then my friend Charlie Bennett and I took the train to Philadelphia, where we stood in a vast throng as the great, great, great, great grandchildren of the signers of the Declaration of Independence stood on a rolling green where the Liberty Bell was displayed. At noon, these children tapped the bell with their hands, for, as I remember, it could not be rung. And then Charlie and I went on to Washington, D.C., for the festivities there, where a good man named Gerald Ford watched the fireworks from the lawn of the White House with friends and family. 

What a day. But it was in Philadelphia that, for me, the great moment occurred. There was an accidental, unplanned moment of silence. I think it was after the Liberty Bell was tapped by the kids. I was in a crowd of thousands. We were waiting for the next big thing to happen, and were all being quiet, and I guess someone decided that silence was not quite right for this day. 

From the back of the crowd came a sound. It was a young man and he was singing. The song was "America." It built in volume and traveled through the crowd and soon everyone was singing. And everyone smiled at the end and laughed—a sweet moment, mildly embarrassing and deeply moving at the same time. But it was a natural moment. It was not planned. It was spontaneous and sweet.