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Patriotic Acts:A Privilege and a Duty:

An American Citizen's Perspective

By: Cathie Tonkins

The concept of patriotism is in the mind5 of the citizenry of a country more in wartime than in peacetime. One of the first ideas of patriotism that comes to the psyche is the willingness to die for the country. Nathan Hale, at twenty-one, fought for independence and paid the ultimate price. His last words come to mind as one of the first patriotic statements of this nation, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” (Hale). Not many citizens are called on to give their lives to the cause, but that is not to say that involvement in government and exercising rights is beyond the scope of the average person.

Waving the American flag and boasting lapel pins and bumper stickers to some is seen as a sign of patriotism, but this is just symbolic patriotism. According to Sam Smith, author of “How to be a Patriot,” “We have been taught to cheer rather than act, to wear logos rather than think, and to purchase rather than control and influence” (52). Getting involved in issues that confront the nation and voicing opinions is a more tangible sign of patriotism than flag waving. Individual involvement in government is important in today’s world to ensure the continuation of American pride and American ideals. Citizens can show their patriotism for country with acts of loyalty, duty and sacrifice.

One aspect of patriotism an individual can display is loyalty to one’s country and ideals. To be loyal to something one has to understand the history behind it. A patriotic American takes the time to study history, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. An informed public knows when ideals are being compromised. Americans grow up pledging allegiance to the flag. That is a promise to uphold the ideals of the United States, a promise of loyalty. The ideals of democracy and natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are just the starting point but as it states in the Declaration of Independence, “…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it” (Jefferson 369). Laws are constantly being amended or added to the web of truth that makes up the living constitution. People need to be loyal to the spirit of the law and if a law compromises the basic principles of liberty then there is an obligation to institute a change. Sam Smith, editor of the “Progressive Review” attests that, “If our country is about to run into the street without looking, there is absolutely nothing disloyal about crying,”Stop!”” (53). Humans have entered into a social contract; the United States government is the manifestation of that contract and keeper of the peace and liberties of everyone. It is the citizen’s responsibility to see that it is a good contract. Henry David Thoreau stated, “I ask for, not at once no government, but at once a better government. Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it” (386). Education of the citizenry is one way of ensuring that democracy and independence are passed on to the next generation. A loyal citizen instructs the children to love, honor, and cherish the country’s government and traditions but also instructs them in their rights under the Constitution. Keeping a watch on and upholding the Constitution is a form of political loyalty.

Another kind of loyalty is personal and ethical. Citizens need to know their own ideals and when politicians or other citizens try to sway and change some of these ideals a true patriot will hold fast and be loyal. These ideals must be lived; one cannot leave the upholding of ideals to others. It is a citizen’s responsibility to encompass in their personal experience the natural laws in their own lives. Ralph Waldo Emerson in regards to government and law states:

Every man finds a sanction for his simplest claims and deeds, in decisions of his own mind, which he calls Truth and Holiness. In these decisions all the citizens find a perfect agreement. . . . All forms of government symbolize an immortal government, common to all dynasties and independent of numbers, perfect where two men exist, perfect where there is only one man. (385)

One generation teaches the next of what is right and wrong in life and government, be loyal to these truths, be proud of country and self, and freedom will prevail. Ideas of liberty cannot be bought off or compromised. Loyalty to the country and ideals of the nation is a patriotic act.

An individual can show their patriotism by exercising their duty as a citizen and keeper of the country’s ideals. Patriotic or civic duty and good citizenship is a responsibility of all Americans. Voting is one of the most obvious ways of performing civic duty. It is important that the individual research candidates for political office, amendments to state or federal constitutions, and local propositions. Thoreau’s thoughts about voting were, “voting is a sort of Gaming” (391). This view trivializes participating in ones government. A citizen votes his mind but does not hesitate to stand behind his beliefs. The character of the voter is not considered, “I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that the right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it” (392). There is an underlying cynicism in Thoreau’s statements that the one cannot change the many. Time seemed to be an issue with him; if he could not change things immediately, then he would not support the government. If the suffragettes had taken a defeatist attitude women would never have won the right to vote. Women who bravely started the movement never saw the results of their efforts. They never had the right to vote that they were fighting for, but if their perseverance had faltered, change would not have occurred. Pramila Jayapal, founder and director of The Hate Free Zone Campaign and author of “Pilgrimage to India: A Woman Revisits Her Homeland” recently stated:

As we continue in this struggle to reclaim what it means to be American and what it means to live in America, we raise our voices together in pride to say that to each American: Alone, each one of us can make a difference; together, we are unstoppable.” (40).

For all citizens, native born or naturalized, voting lets the collective voice ring in the ears of the government but duty does not stop there. Sometimes people must fight for what is right and to make a positive change.

Massachusetts’s residence unanimously passed a resolution to resist the “Patriot Act” After 9/11, the congress proposed and finally passed this in October 2002. This Act grants the “government increased power to conduct domestic surveillance and to detain immigrants suspected of terrorism indefinitely without charge” (McConnell 7). The descendants of the Boston Tea Party are again fighting for civil liberties. The movement started as a grassroots push to reclaim the liberties stated in the Constitution. Even though a local resolution has no weight on federal law, activists see this as a triumph for letting the federal government and the Bush administration know that not all Americans are buying into this new attempt of the government to take charge of our lives and liberties. Voting, political activism, and resistance can bring about change. It may take time but every voice must be heard and this is the business of a patriot.

Another important patriotic duty is to obey the laws and serve on a jury. Thoreau also had the idea that, “Unjust laws exist: shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them” (395). Therefore, citizens have the obligation to obey the laws but if the laws are not just, then use all of the means afforded by the Constitution to change them. If a citizen goes outside of the law, he must be willing to pay the consequences and must evaluate the subsequent results for good or bad in furthering his cause. Thoreau believed this and decided not to pay a poll tax in protest of slavery and the Mexican American war. He spent a night in jail rather than pay the tax. The Bill of Rights is one of the most important tools that a citizen can use to exercise civic duty. The First Amendment in the Bill of Rights reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (Bardes 71). All citizens need to know these rights and hold them dear. By keeping these rights foremost in the mind, a citizen can institute change, and it is his duty to do so. Serving on a jury is another way to patriotically serve the country by making sure the rights of due process are afforded to all citizens. Under the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution, “All persons, however, including legal and illegal immigrants, have the right to due process of law and equal protection under the law” (146). Jury duty can be seen as a chore and a lot of people try their darnedest to get out of it, when actually, it is one of the privileges given us in the constitution and should be taken seriously. Willingly participating in jury duty is a patriotic act.

Serving in the armed forces is one more important act of patriotic duty. Volunteering for the armed forces is a patriotic endeavor when the country is in dire need. Nathan Hale stated when called to spy on the English, “I wish to be useful, and every kind of service necessary to the public good becomes honorable by being necessary. If the exigencies of my country demand a peculiar service, its claim to perform that service are imperious” (Hale). If the cause is just and the country calls then it is a citizen’s duty to answer that call. This does not mean that if the nation is participating in an inherently evil or destructive conflict that a person has to go along. As the nation saw in the Vietnam conflict, people chose to not participate in the war, and chose to go to jail or leave the country. It is a citizen’s duty to evaluate the circumstances of military action and then act upon their own conscience. Using the first amendment rights and by voting, policy changes can be made, if they are not, then the citizen should be prepared to protest and accept the consequences. Service to ones country is an important responsibility and when this service is in the cause of justice and liberty, this duty is a poignant sign of patriotism.

People who know what they would sacrifice for the common good of the country also demonstrate patriotism. What are people willing to die for? What cause is great or noble enough? Would people die in defense of their homes, for their property, for their country? Not many of us will be called on to die for our country, but our sons and daughters might. It would be prudent to educate and prepare them to make that choice. Sacrifice is the loss of something valuable, whether that is loss of life, family, or liberty. The cause for which one is willing to make a sacrifice is important to a patriot. Liberties and the Constitution are ideals for which fighting and dying is a reasonable price to pay. Our forefathers certainly believed so. Thomas Jefferson, when writing the declaration of independence, called it “an expression of the American mind” (Wetmore). The founding fathers believed that tyranny must be defeated at all costs and they were willing to make the sacrifice. Today citizens can honor that sacrifice by protecting the Constitution and Bill of Rights for generations to come.

American style democracy has spread across the globe and now citizens in other countries are using the Constitution and democratic processes to impart change in their own countries. Americans can learn from the sacrifices that people in other countries are willing to make to get a taste of what we have. Such an example is Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma who led her country in a quest for democracy, she said, “For me it is as much a political tactic as a spiritual belief, that violence is not the right way. It would simply not assist us in building up a strong democracy” (Clements 38). Suu Kyi led the National League for Democracy in a nonviolent campaign based on civil disobedience that won the 1990 elections in Burma. The government did not honor the vote and declared martial law imprisoning Suu Kyi even to this day. She was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1991. This selfless act is the decisive sacrifice of a patriot.

Many black Americans have made sacrifices for the country and have very strong feelings about freedom and patriotism. Fredrick Douglass was invited to speak to an audience at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York in 1852, at a fourth of July celebration. He talked about the irony of a black man being asked to celebrate independence, but put forth his idea of what America needed to be doing. “Feel the truth of what you are, America, and at the same moment act! Risk yourself for what you know is right and true” (Needleman 17). Douglass himself had braved rising against his slave master and escaped to the North when he was just sixteen. Luckily he did live to see the day when black men could vote, he was a true patriot.

Singing songs and fighting for civil rights is also a type of patriotism especially when the sacrifice of livelihood is a possibility. The Constitution speaks of truths and unalienable rights that are for all people, for people from different lands and cultures. Josh White, a blues singer, sang songs about civil rights and equality long before it was popular to do so. He recorded a song in 1944 titled “The House I live In.” that spoke about what America is or could be:

What is America to Me?

The house I live in, my neighbors white and black,

The people who just came here or from generations back.

The town hall and the soapbox, the torch of Liberty,

A home for all God’s children, that’s America to me. (White)

Josh sang songs such as this and others like “Strange Fruit” and the “Free and Equal Blues.” (Wald 122-23) He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era; this essentially put an end to his career. This was a tremendous sacrifice and fortunately, Josh lived to see the civil rights movement in full swing. He played guitar and sang on the steps of the Lincoln memorial at the same civil rights protest that Martin Luther king Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 (271). A true patriot is willing to sacrifice his livelihood for the good of the country.

Involvement in government by individuals is imperative for the preservation of American ideals and pride. Patriotism is the name given to acts of loyalty, duty and sacrifice for one’s country. Loyalty or allegiance to the unalienable rights described in the Declaration of Independence; life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is patriotic. Performing one’s civic duty of voting, obeying laws, serving jury duty, and enlisting in the armed forces are important acts of patriotism. Standing up for the ideals of the country and risking losing family, liberty or the supreme sacrifice of giving one’s life for the cause of freedom is also a sign of a true patriot. What in today’s society could cause a citizen to evoke acts of patriotism in his or her own sphere of influence? In this age of instant information, a concerned citizen needs to be ever vigilant at deciphering the mass quantities of data and be ready to act upon what is found. Social injustices, lose of civil liberties, hate crimes, these are all things needing assessment and if these things go against the grain of the individual’s moral ideals of what the country stands for then action is called for. Patriotism is not to be left to the person next door it is to be ever present in one’s own house, mind and heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

 

Bardes, Barbara A, Mack C Shelley and Steffen W Schmidt. American Government and Politics Today: The Essentials. 2002-2003 ed. Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002. 60-77.

Clements, Alan. “The Power of the Powerless”. Yes: a journal of positive futures #20 (Winter 2002): 38-39.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Modern Library, 2000. 378-389.

Hale, Edward Everett. “Captain Nathan Hale (1755-1776)”. Connecticut Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. 1996-2002. 2 December 2002. Http://www.ctssar.org/patriots/nathan_hale.htm

Jayapal, Pramila. “Speaking for Justice.” Yes: a journal of positive futures #24 (Winter 2003): 37-40.

Jefferson, Thomas. The Declaration of Independence. Creating America: Reading and Writing Arguments. 3rd ed. Joyce Moser and Ann Watters. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2002. 369-373.

McConnell, Carolyn. “Declarations of Liberty.” Yes: a journal of positive futures #23 (Fall 2002): 7.

Needleman, Jacob. “Founding America.” Yes: a journal of positive futures #21 (Spring 2002): 13-17.

Smith, Sam. “How to be a Patriot.” Yes: a journal of positive futures #21 (Spring 2002): 52-54.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and Civil Disobedience. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. 385-413.

Wald, Elijah. Josh White: Society Blues. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 2000.

Wetmore, Erik. “Defending Liberty.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. July 4, 2002. 2 December 2002 http://web.lexis-nexis.com

White, Josh. “The House I Live In.” By Lewis Allan and Earl Robinson. Josh White / Free and Equal Blues. Smithsonian Folkways, 1998.