Patriotism vs. Nationalism in America

The Patriotic Underpinnings of the American Economy

A boy with a flag in his left hand raises his right and intones an oath of citizenship.

Mario Tama / Getty Images News

Patriotism is love of country and pride in the values and ideals it represents. Patriots are devoted to their nation. Citizens exhibit patriotism when they salute their country’s flag, sing their national anthem, or celebrate their nation’s day of independence. The patriot knows what the country stands for, its history, and the sacrifices that have been made to create it and keep it.

“There is a naturalness to patriotism, reflecting a healthy love for what is one’s own, gratitude for what one has been given, and reverence for the sources of one’s being,” writes Wilfred M. McClay, professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.

But patriotism is more than just an emotion. Love of country, like love for a child, is a decision to nurture the beloved. For patriots, that means actively participating in what makes the nation successful. This includes voting, community events, and defending the nation against enemies. In a democracy, it also means having rational discussions about the issues facing the country and the best ways to solve them.

“Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the president or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country,” according to former President Theodore Roosevelt.

Patriotism encourages healthy debate. It does not mean blindly following the country’s leader or current policies if one disagrees with them. It requires courage to stand up for the country’s values if the leader diverges from them.

Mark Twain put it plainly when he said, “[M]odern patriotism, the true patriotism, the only rational patriotism, is loyalty to the Nation all the time, loyalty to the Government when it deserves it.”

  • Patriotism is love of country that’s best expressed as active participation in its continued success. 
  • It is loyalty to the nation and its values, but not the leaders if they hold different values.
  • American patriotism values each person’s desire to pursue his or her own idea of happiness. 
  • The Founding Fathers put into law protections for that right because it fuels national economic success.
  • That desire to improve one’s life creates the economic mobility that is fundamental to the nation’s prosperity.
  • Other values include the religious freedom, freedom of speech, and democratic elections.
  • American patriotism has evolved to provide these protections to all races, genders, and ages.

American Patriotism

America’s Founding Fathers were its first patriots. They put their lives on the line to create a nation that reflected their ideals. They clearly outlined these values in the Declaration of Independence:

”We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Founding Fathers put into law the revolutionary idea that each person’s desire to pursue happiness was not merely self-indulgence. They recognized that each person’s pursuit of happiness was integral to the ambition and creativity that fosters economic success. The pursuit of happiness became the driver of the entrepreneurial spirit that defines the American free market economy. By legally protecting these values, the Founding Fathers said that it is the government’s role to protect each person’s opportunity to pursue their own idea of happiness.

The Founding Fathers protected every American’s right to achieve his or her potential. This allows each citizen to contribute their personal best to society. The best way to ensure national progress is to protect citizens’ rights to improve their lives. The Founding Fathers recognized that this creates the economic mobility that is fundamental to the nation’s prosperity.

The Declaration continues, “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The Founding Fathers rejected kings who inherited their leadership, barons who bought it, or warlords who fought their way to the top with military might. That’s why the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution begins with the words “We the People.”

“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 choose their leaders,” writes conservative columnist Peggy Noonan of the Heritage Foundation.

American Patriotism Thrives With Checks and Balances 

To the drafters of the Declaration, the American dream could only thrive with active discussion between those with differing viewpoints. They put in checks and balances to be sure that no president or other elected official could become a king. These checks and balances encourage debate.

They were firmly opposed to “taxation without representation.” Kings, military rulers, or tyrants shouldn’t decide taxes and other laws. The people should have the right to elect officials to represent them. These leaders must abide by the laws themselves and not unilaterally create new legislation.

The Founding Fathers made sure citizens would be ruled by a set of shared ideals, not by a government. The people’s active participation would keep any one person from achieving too much power. That also means the system requires people’s active and informed involvement.

“I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised, for the preservation of freedom, and happiness.” Thomas Jefferson, Aug. 13, 1786 in a letter to George Wythe

In this way, the Founding Fathers set up a society that attracts those aspiring to a better life. 

Evolution of American Patriotism

This system of checks and balances and of freedom of speech allows democracy and its ideals to evolve. For example, when the founders said “all men were created equal,” they did not believe that African American slaves fit that description. But 100 years later, many people in America thought differently. The result was the American Civil War, which almost destroyed the nation. President Abraham Lincoln touched on the great peril facing the country. He called for a patriotic return to the Founding Fathers’ values:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure…It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us…that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

President Lincoln used this call to patriotism to grant the Founding Fathers’ right to grant equal opportunity to pursue happiness to slaves.

President Woodrow Wilson extended that right and patriotic duty to vote to women. It led to the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in 1918. 

President Lyndon B. Johnson promoted Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. That ended segregation in the schools, giving all races the ability to obtain the knowledge that democracy needs to be successful. It also protects workers from discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, which includes pregnancy, or national origin. In 1967, he extended those rights to people over the age of 40. 

Patriotism vs. Nationalism

Nationalism is a belief that one’s nation is superior to all others. Nationalists believe their shared interests supersede all other individual or group interests. They believe this superiority gives them the right to dominate other groups or nations. This encourages militarism and often leads to imperialism. If left unchecked, the government can take over the economy and become a fascist state.

This feeling of superiority differentiates nationalism from patriotism. The latter equates to pride in one’s country and a willingness to defend it. Sydney J. Harris, columnist for the Chicago Daily News, put it well when he said, “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.“

In “Notes on Nationalism,” George Orwell differentiated the two in this way:

“By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.

“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ But secondly—and this is much more important—I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.”