Mystic Chords of Memory: Cultivating America’s Unique Form of Patriotism

The American Educator 26:1 (Spring 2002): 26–38; reprinted in Democracy and the Constitution: Landmarks of Contemporary Political Thought (AEI Press, 2006).


Patriotism. The word itself comes from the Latin patria, meaning country. Patriotism implies a love of country, a readiness to sacrifice for it, perhaps even a willingness to give one’s life for it. This was well understood in the countries (or cities) of classical antiquity, where citizens were patriots who loved their country simply because it was their country—because it was “their birthplace and the mansion of their fathers,” as Alexis de Tocqueville put it in his famous Democracy in America. Citizenship was a kind of filial piety, made possible in part because, in general, they were homogeneous peoples descended from the same ancestors, few in number, and inhabiting an area smaller than the District of Columbia.

Our patriotism is not so simply derived. We are many, not few. And we are no longer, if we ever were, a people descended from the same ancestors. In principle, whereas no stranger could become, say, a Spartan, anybody can become an American, and millions of people from around the world have done so; this helps to explain why that patriotic word “fatherland” has no place in our vocabulary.

But our need of citizens who love this country and who are willing to fight for it is the same.

American Educator