The conservative historian Wilfred McClay has argued that there are, at the very least, two distinct ways to love America. An American patriot can partake in both ways, of course, and both are equally relevant and profound; but they are not one and the same.
One way is to love America because of its ideals: equality, liberty, justice, self-government, democracy, and all the rest. The institutions, the heritage, the way of life: all are good things primarily because they are rooted in a general conception of justice and morality made real. Should these institutions betray these ideals, they are not worth our dedication, or perhaps the true dedication would be to shift our institutions back under the guidance of the ideals, however those ideals are defined.
The other way is to love America because of its heritage: the historical dramas of the Revolution and the Civil War and the westward movement; the storied histories of our universities, cities, churches, and businesses; and the passionate lives and achievements of great Americans from all backgrounds who, with all their human foibles, made the order we’ve inherited something better than it was before. The ideals of America are good things, in this conception, primarily because they have animated the life of our country’s story, a story that is admirable in itself.
These two ways of loving America—America-as-ideals and America-as-heritage—are not necessarily contradictory. But they often are in tension. The classic example, of course, is slavery, and its long, cruel shadow, its presence standing in stark contrast to our stated glorious ideals of freedom and equality. In the present moment, some contend that American ideals were false from the start; others, that American ideals are the only things redeeming a sordid historical reality; and others, that the American heritage must be reexamined and recast if it is to be acceptable to modern standards of morality.
All these perspectives have a valid point, as anyone who has studied and thought deeply about history will readily admit. But these perspectives avoid a more profound question: whether there is real value in patriotic devotion to one’s country, despite that country’s sins, and the relation of American ideals to that devotion. Fortunately for us moderns, this is not a new question; American patriots have struggled with it for centuries, in times that bore more resemblance to our own than many of us would be comfortable admitting. So let’s look back at some American patriots and what they had to say about this.
First, Abraham Lincoln delivered a eulogy on the legendary senator Henry Clay in 1852, extolling the Great Compromiser’s spirit of moderation and devotion to the Union. Lincoln’s immortal description of Clay lives on in relevance: “He loved his country partly because it was his own country, but mostly because it was a free country.”
Second, the now-forgotten immigrant-turned-general-turned-senator Carl Schurz, in a debate in the U.S. Senate in 1872, responded to a jingoistic interpretation of American patriotism with his own take: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Finally, the late senator John McCain’s cryptic words describing the American puzzle, upon his receipt of the Liberty Medal in 2017, one of the greatest speeches delivered in our lifetime: “the land with the storied past forgotten in the rush to the imagined future, the land that repairs and reinvents itself.”
These three senators, in their own times and in various ways, were enchanted by the promise and richness of the American heritage and the American idea simultaneously. While living lives that gave homage to the best of American heritage, they also led distinguished careers advancing American ideals, often more effectively than their more vociferous and idealistic contemporaries. But there is tension in their words.
The American patriot who loves American ideals would see that tension between, on the one hand, the justice and righteousness of a splendid, transcendent cause—redemption, equality, democracy—and, on the other hand, the stubborn political realities of America, with America’s long traditional past and all its darkness dragging behind like a chain-ball.
The American patriot who loves America’s heritage would see that tension between, on the one hand, the grandeur and decency of the American experience—the blood of patriots, the sweat of labor and reform, the nobility of democracy—and, on the other hand, the raucous political temperaments of America, with America’s penchant for radicalism sweeping good inheritances away.
Senator Clay, Senator Schurz, and Senator McCain seem to have felt both tensions vividly. Each was a good man who spent his long career in service to America; each was near the center of the great controversies of his times and known as something of a maverick. They were alternately beloved and condemned by their fellow citizens, but they served on, anyway.
It might be nice to have a shared consensus on what American ideals should be, or how we ought to commemorate the American heritage, or any other number of subjective interpretations so crucial to nationhood. But as the three senators displayed, you don’t necessarily need to find such a consensus if you want to be a patriotic public servant. It is possible to accept, appreciate, serve, and serve alongside those fellow Americans of ours whose conceptions of all this are antithetical to our own, building and ennobling the beautiful, cacophonous orchestra of America as we do.
Clay, Schurz, and McCain knew, probably as well as any president or poet, that their fellow Americans would always disappoint them and sometimes hate them. But they served them anyway. May we profit from their examples.
Luke Nathan Phillips is editor of The Conversation's opinion content at Braver Angels. He is based in the Washington D.C. metro area.