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In the midst of a global pandemic and an economic crisis, President Donald Trump recently found time to convene a Committee on Patriotic Education. In principle this was not a bad idea. The great question of course is how will patriotism be taught, and who will be its teachers? Or, as Karl Marx famously asked, Who will educate the educators?

Trump’s panel included one distinguished historian (Allen Guelzo) and a number of conservative movement apparatchiks. The centerpiece of the event was a celebration of Wilfred McClay’s recently published American history textbook Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. The title sounds almost like a parody of the fictional Land of Truth and Liberty used in the history class in the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High.    

The panel was conceived as a response to the influence of the New York Times sponsorship of “The 1619 Project,” which was devised to make slavery and anti-black racism the core of the American experience. This proposal would date the American founding not from the arrival of the first European settlers, but from the year when twenty African slaves were sold to the Jamestown Colony in Virginia. American history, on this account, is both founded and marked by persistent racial oppression and hierarchy. Even the American Revolution is presented as a struggle to preserve slavery. 

Such a one-sided moralism not only diminishes our founding principles; it minimizes the efforts of generations of Americans — both black and white — in their struggles against slavery and racism.

My own sense of where patriotic education should begin is with close attention to the ideas of Abraham Lincoln, the man who arguably has given American democracy its highest and most articulate expression. 

There are three features of Lincoln’s patriotism that bear careful scrutiny.

First, Lincolnian patriotism is egalitarian. This derives from his reading of the Declaration of Independence and especially its affirmation that “all men are created equal.” This was enough to inform not only his opposition to slavery, but the principled foundation he offered for what it means to be an American. Equality provided the moral foundation for Lincoln’s idea of self-government, and his vision of a nation of free men and women where no one governs another without that other’s consent. 

Lincoln made the teaching of equality the centerpiece of his difference with Stephen A. Douglas. Douglas hoped to turn the slavery issue into a test of his doctrine of popular sovereignty. Douglas declared himself to be “indifferent” as to whether slavery was voted up or down so long as it was the product of a democratic majority. It would be the supreme test of the general will. But for Lincoln the doctrine of popular sovereignty was a poor substitute for the principle of equality.

For Lincoln, the idea of equality existed prior to democracy. It is what made democracy possible. He regarded the Union not as resting upon the direct expression of the popular will — a kind of American version of Rousseau’s “general will” — but upon a belief in the principle of equal human rights. A slave-holding republic — one that did not respect the rights and dignity of each individual — was a contradiction in terms. Lincoln expressed his view almost as a political catechism. “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.” 

Second, Lincolnian patriotism is aspirational. It is not simply an unreflective version of “my country right or wrong,” but is connected to the vision of America that Lincoln was hoping to achieve. He did not rest satisfied or complacent with what we are, but sought to make us what we ought to be as a people and a nation. This aspirational quality of patriotism is connected to an idea of individual self-development and perfection. 

A central part of this perfectionism was the role of work, self-help, and upward mobility. Lincoln’s image of self-improvement is not just a piece of what would later become a crude celebration of economic success and the survival of the fittest. He valued material success, to be sure, never as an end in itself but always as a vehicle to moral autonomy and independence. He viewed the system of free labor through the lenses of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and of course the first and still greatest American self-help story, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. These works provided the larger theological and ethical context through which Lincoln viewed the American system of free labor.  

It is the perfectionist aspect of Lincoln’s patriotism that also accounts for its cautiously progressive character. Lincoln was not a progressive in the sense that he believed history was governed by a unitary direction — Progress with an upper-case “P” — moving mankind toward an inevitable triumph of the national spirit (as in Hegel’s Philosophy of History). Progress was for Lincoln always a far more limited matter of fits and starts, trial and error, a process always subject to future revision. 

Lincoln realized that the principle of equality could not have been intended as an empirical proposition, given the widespread toleration of slavery and other practices at the time of the founding. Equality was not a “self-evident truth” as Jefferson had proclaimed it, but an object of moral aspiration and struggle, something that requires dedication and will. It was proposed as an ideal to be labored for that could underscore devotion to American democracy.

Finally, Lincolnian patriotism is inclusive. It is not the exclusive property of one people or one race to be hoarded and jealously conserved. His writings continually emphasized the open and inclusive character of the American republic in contrast to the nativists and nationalists of his period. The American republic is defined not by religion, race, or ethnic identity, but by adherence to the principle of rights embodied in our founding documents.

Lincoln’s enlarged republicanism took the immediate form of opposition to the nativist and anti-immigrant policies of the American Party or the Know-Nothings — the Trumpists of his period. 

Regarding the wave of anti-immigrant fervor that was sweeping over America at mid-century, Lincoln had nothing but contempt. “Our progress in degeneracy,” he wrote to his friend and law partner Joshua Speed, “appears to me to be pretty rapid.” Rather than acquiesce to the exclusion of not only Blacks but foreigners and Catholics from the principles of the Declaration, Lincoln claimed he would prefer emigrating to some country, perhaps Russia, “where they make no pretense of loving liberty” and “where despotism can be taken pure, without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

The same language of inclusivity pervaded Lincoln’s later utterances. In a speech in Cincinnati, he welcomed a group of German immigrants who had recently escaped the wave of repression following the failed revolution of 1848. He affirmed, “It is not my nature when I see a people borne down by the weight of their shackles — the oppression of tyranny — to make their life more bitter by heaping upon them greater burdens; but rather would I do all in my power to raise the yoke, than to add anything that would tend to crush them.”

The language of lifting weights and burdens from the shoulders of people clearly connects Lincoln’s language back to the Puritan notion of a “calling” and a quest for salvation from the burdens of original sin. However, for Lincoln the original political sin was inequality and the mission of the American republic is release from that fallen state.

Lincoln provides us with a model of enlightened patriotism that can serve as an antidote to the attempt to make patriotism serve the cause of national greatness.  

Unlike European patriotism that has often taken the form of attachment to blood and soil, or biblical patriotism that was based on divine promises, ours is a uniquely principled patriotism. We are, as Samuel Huntington argued, a “creedal nation” — a people of the book — based on certain ideas and beliefs about not only of who we are, but also of who we might become.

Lincoln’s patriotism provides an antidote to two tendencies discussed earlier. 

In opposition to the Trump panel, Lincoln did not invoke the founders in order to bathe in a warm glow of nostalgia for a world that once was. And unlike the 1619 Project, Lincoln did not view America as irredeemably mired in racism. 

His appeal to our founding doctrines was intended to provide an ideal — “a standard maxim for a free society” — that may never be fully achieved but which must remain a constant goal to be worked and labored for. Lincoln truly is “patriotism’s poet.”

Steven B. Smith is the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science and a professor of philosophy at Yale University. This article draws from his forthcoming book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes (Yale University Press, 2021).