MY VIEW/Jane Hampton Cook – Patriotism in Perspective:1776 vs. 2008

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Independence Day celebrations are among the most tangible expressions of American pride. They take an invisible qualitypatriotismand make it visible and audible through fireworks, parades and concerts. But how does today’s patriotism compare with the first patriots? 

Our founders also showed their patriotism through public displays. At times, they couldn’t contain their enthusiasm.  

“People I am told, recognize the Resolution [of independence] as though it were a decree promulgated from Heaven,” Samuel Adams wrote, adding, “Monarchy seems to be generally exploded.”  

Indeed, it wasliterally. Before the ink dried on his gigantic signature, John Hancock sent a copy of the Declaration of Independence to George Washington, who ordered a public reading for his army camped in Manhattan. Inspired, many pulled down a statue of King George III, ignited a fire, melted his likeness and molded 42,000 musket balls. Their zeal thundered up the Hudson River and lit high heaven.

Americans know true patriotism is more than a show. Patriotism is something deeper. Patriotism transcends differencesregional and culturalfor the common good. When the Continental Congress first met in 1774, they had to unite against their common enemy. Procedural matters over regional differences nearly suffocated them. One member offered a remedy. 

“Government is dissolved,” Patrick Henry declared. If the king could abolish Massachusetts’s government, he could do it anywhere. 

“Where are your landmarks, your boundaries of Colonies? We are in a state of nature.The distinctions between Virginians, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, and New Englanders, are no more. I am not a Virginian, but an American,” Henry cried. 

Regional differences no longer divide Americans in the same way. Television has the power to bring images of Midwest flooding into every home and rally aid. But there are times when Americans must set aside their differences for the greater good. One of the most visible examples of this took place after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when members of Congress stood on the Capitol steps and sang “God Bless America.” 

Probably the most significant difference between patriotism in 1776 and 2008 is this: patriotism was essential to their survival.  

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” Benjamin Franklin observed. Franklin knew what he was talking about. His patriotism was born from betrayal. Franklin was America’s postmaster general when his British friendsones he had celebrated the king’s coronation with years earlierput him through a mock trial at a London tavern in January 1774. 

“Spy, traitor, would-be assassin, rebel” were among their many accusations. Only a hangman’s noose was worse than their execution of verbal abuse. They accused Franklin of exposing the governor of Massachusetts’s efforts to restrain colonial rights. This Philadelphian printer known for his pithy sayings remained speechless throughout the trial. When the king fired him, Franklin returned to America. The moment forever tattooed patriotism on Franklin’s heart. He turned to friends he could trustthe Continental Congress. 

Patriotism is not truly essential for our nation’s survival today. We’ve built a firm infrastructure based on the U.S. Constitution, state governments, a strong economy and productive workforce. But patriotism does affect our quality of life, especially for members of the military and their families. 

A June 12-15, 2008 ABC News/Washington Post Poll reported that 63 percent of those surveyed do not think the Iraq war is worth fighting. Such polls and sentiment dispirit military families and weaken patriotism. A gold star mom, who lost her son in Iraq, described the damage this way, “America is at war, but Americans are at the mall.” 

Patriotism may not be essential to our survival, but it uplifts and reinforces our unity, just as it did in 1776. 

“I cannot but take notice how wonderfully Providence has smiled upon us by causing the several colonies to unite so firmly together against the tyranny of Great Britain,” soldier Samuel West observed about the reconvening of the Continental Congress in May 1776. 

“Though differing from each other in their particular interest, forms of government, modes of worship, and particular customs and manners, besides several animositiesthat, under these circumstances, such a union should take place as we now behold, was a thing that might rather have been wished than hoped for,” West gushed. 

Two months later the Continental Congress showed their patriotism by risking their lives to issue the Declaration of Independence. The 56 signers knew they had earned a place on the king’s most wanted list. But their patriotism gave us, the “unborn millions” as George Washington called future generations, the liberty we celebrate this July 4.  

Regardless of the era, patriotism strengthens America. 

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, a 365-day digest with personal writings from about 20 key players in the Revolutionary War. She is a former webmaster to President Bush. She lives in Vienna.

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