Essay Series on Patriotism: Fourth Essay, “For (Critical) Love of Country”

This is the fourth in a series of several essays by different authors on the issue of patriotism. This series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.

Randal Hendrickson is a political theorist and host of PODOPTICON: A Politics, History, and Culture Podcast

Three visions of patriotism in three essays. And now a fourth. This, if anything, suggests that “patriotism” as a term is oddly flexible. It’s a form of love, of course, and as Steven Smith has noted, our love is defined by its object. But what is the object here? What is America? Patriotism, like its object, is a moving target.

To highlight some difficulties with patriotism, I’ll make use of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the end, I’ll try my hand at a version of patriotism that’s a partial synthesis of the essays that come before mine in this series. It’s all very provisional.

To foreshadow: I suggest that a thing called reasonable patriotism is possible, that we should drop the familial and religious metaphors, that such patriotism is inclusive and capable of expanding, and that it is above all a critical stance rooted in the dignity of individuals as citizens with diverse claims on a complex nation.


Rousseau is useful in this setting for two reasons:  one, for the extremes he represents with regard to patriotism (by his metaphors, especially); and two, for the example he sets with his own life (which is fair game, as he made it so himself with the three autobiographical works he wrote at the end).

Rousseau is a party-pooper whose historical impact is difficult to overstate. He is a thinker of contradictions, one who puts his life on display in a moment before the term “autobiography” exists, the republican whose influence on Romanticism is as unmistakable as that on the French Revolution. Rousseau criticizes the Enlightenment from the inside–largely on behalf of what we’d call patriotism. And so in Rousseau, you might say you have the opposition between patriotism and enlightenment. That leads to the question: can there be an enlightened patriotism? I think so. But we need to consider the dark side first. We can begin at the origins of Rousseau’s fame. 

There’s the story of his “illumination” on the way to visit his friend Diderot, who was at present imprisoned at Vincennes for views expressed in his Philosophical Thoughts (1746). As Rousseau made his journey that October morning in 1749, he thumbed through a copy of the Mercury of France and saw the advertisement for an essay competition put on by the Academy of Dijon. Now overcome, he had to stop under a tree:  “suddenly I felt my mind dazzled by a thousand lights,” he later recounted in a now famous letter to Malesherbes (1762).The question the Academy asked was whether the “restoration of the sciences & arts tended to purify morals.” Rousseau answered “no.” That answer won him his fame and, he says, a good deal of misery. This story is more or less well-known to anyone who comes across Rousseau.

What’s less noted, I think, is some interesting context. At his moment of “illumination” Rousseau was in the employ of the Dupin family, who enlisted the talented unknown’s services in Claude Dupin’s effort to write a refutation of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws (1748), at least a refutation of the portions unfriendly to France’s tax-farming system, of which there was plenty to concern the tax-farming Dupin family.

This is all to say that Montesquieu was on Rousseau’s mind as he penned what became the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1751), later known as the First Discourse. And it shows in the bits of the work that are clear paraphrases. One such line is typical:  “Ancient Political thinkers incessantly talked about morals and virtue, those of our time talk only of business and money.” Montesquieu put it this way in his Spirit of Laws

The political thinkers of Greece who lived under popular government recognized no other force to sustain it than virtue. Those of today speak to us only of manufacturing, commerce, finance, wealth, and even luxury.

No one will deny that these statements are very similar. And so in the abstract, it looks like they agree, but in fact they don’t. It’s Rousseau who means to shame his readers in this case. It’s Montesquieu who will eventually let the commercially inclined off the hook. It’s all a matter of accent. 

While in the Spirit of Laws Montesquieu lets the distinction between the antique patriots and us unfold in our favor, Rousseau seems never to tire of reminding us that in the old days, the ancient days, things were better. This goes for patriotism, especially.

Rousseau carries on his us-versus-them approach in his Discourse on Political Economy (1755). Here he swoons:

It is certain that the greatest miracles of virtue have been produced by love of the fatherland. By combining the force of amour-propre with all the beauty of virtue, this sweet and ardent feeling gains an energy which…makes it the most heroic of the passions.

Rousseau speaks of “amour-propre.” This is one of his two definitions of self-love, the other being the self-love belonging to all animals, the sort of thing that makes a dog want to be fed and not beaten. Amour-propre is the self-love that belongs uniquely to the human animal. At its ugliest, it’s some kind of vanity. At its highest, it’s some kind of pride. Each side of the coin comes with different results. Think of either a stupid duel sprung from an insult to one’s honor, or, imagine an act of honorable resistance to an unjust command.

But like all love, amour-propre can get intense, and even blind, as can “love of fatherland.” Here Rousseau gets a bit carried away:

The ecstasies of tender hearts appear as so many chimeras to anyone who has not felt them. And love of the fatherland, a hundred times more ardent and delightful than that of a mistress, likewise cannot be conceived except by being experienced.

What more does one need to say to suggest that patriotism is a sort of unreason? It’s a form of unreason that has to be taught, to boot.

The us-versus-them as ancient against modern thus gives way to an us-versus-them with reference to polities. While Montesquieu spoke of the “general spirit” that each nation retains in its international activities, Rousseau intensifies the borders between nations. This takes the form of a denaturing of the individual, which is essentially how he defines the education to patriotism that can lead to all the ecstasy. A patriotic state cannot be a state that has a hands-off approach with its citizens’ lives.

And so patriotism, being a kind of love of and loyalty to family, requires some kind of familiar feeling of humanity, but “it seems that the feeling of humanity evaporates and weakens as it is extended over the whole world.” Such feelings “must in some way be confined and compressed to be activated.” We love what is most our own, what is familiar, and so Rousseau’s patriotic polity (if we’re speaking of what’s most amenable to a patriotic citizen-body) must be rather small and contained. This is also the “we’re-a-big-family” view of patriotism.


Steven Smith is right to note the family ties to the word “patriotism.” I want to suggest that that family language smacks too much of the blood and soil from which we’ve otherwise proudly departed as bases for belonging and political self-understanding. What makes a constitutional order shine is not matters of blood but principle. There is something to appreciate. But even Smith, who is very clear in his book that American patriotism is unique for its not being a matter of blood and soil, makes use of the family metaphor there and here in the Constitutionalist. He thus likens patriotism to the loyalty one feels for one’s family.

The loyalty we seek, however, is not the kind at work in families; loyalty to principle is something else. It includes the possibility of critique and some hypothetical power of citizen as agent of change for the better.

Steven Smith is right to note that love of family need not mean neglect of others, but to think of our nation as a family does not work. Aside from the blood affiliation, it leaves too little space for criticism of the object of one’s affection. The trick is finding a reasonable patriotism, which might sound like an oxymoron by now.

If in this case the family metaphor does not work, neither will the religious. A digression on Lincoln might be useful here.


It seems that any time the question of patriotism is brought up in these settings, some reference to Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address (1838) is soon to follow. Indeed, Jacobsohn makes fine use of it in his essay, where he notes that Lincoln there suggests that “unimpassioned reason” might be the basis of our loyalty to a constitution. I want to suggest the speech is a touch too moving but that its rhetorical drift points us to something useful.         

I can’t know what Lincoln intended, but I want to note the quick movement from religious metaphor to the complications of “sober reason.” Let me start, though, where Lincoln is less sober. Indeed, Rousseau could’ve written what follows in a moment civil-religious frenzy. Lincoln, making his case for the centrality of “reverence for the laws,” says we ought to let that reverence be:

the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars.

I’ve suggested that reasonable patriotism must include the ever-present possibility of critique of authority. Where in this image of blind service might one find space for critique?

Lincoln starts to find the space, so to speak, by changing his language somewhat. From the suggestion that sounds like uncritical religiosity, the future president begins a string of reasoning about what he means to say and what troubles the U.S. faces. Lincoln is first quite quick to note that, following his unceasing-sacrifice-at-the-altar-of-liberty metaphor, he does not mean to suggest that there are no bad laws. There are bad laws, he says, and so they should be repealed–legally. In the meantime, though, we still ought to observe laws “religiously.” And so with the possibility of repeal, Lincoln has introduced the possibility of critique in the landscape of political religion. 

That amounts, I think, to a positive revision of the metaphor. Near the end he’s hopeful, but not prayerful. By the close of the speech, we’re still dwelling in a “temple,” it’s true, but the temple needs new pillars, and those, Lincoln says, will be “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” And so here in Lincoln is an example of joining reason to our patriotism. If the Lyceum Address gets carried away rhetorically in a manner I likened to Rousseau’s, then, the speech at least seems to resolve in favor of some critical stance. But we’re not quite there.

At a later, greater moment of crisis, Lincoln had less recourse to the religiosity of the Lyceum Address. In the Gettysburg Address, he speaks in terms of propositions and includes some assertions of the Declaration among them. As he eulogizes the dead, Lincoln opens with reference to a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Here the “truth” of the Declaration is a “proposition” to which one might also be dedicated. The Gettysburg Address is appropriate as a piece for the fallen, and the rhetoric of devotion to a proposition is more appropriate to a nation whose members ought to be critical of the thing now and again.

In other words, citizens might ask themselves whether their nation lives up to its propositions. They might then organize and act accordingly. I don’t think Lincoln had to resolve the tension between family and polity that Steven Smith and Jacobsohn mention. I’d venture that he knows well enough that family and polity are distinct things that don’t often really come into conflict–and that the Lyceum Address’s foray into the language of blind religious sacrifice is the exception rather than the rule of his thought.


For all of his heady talk, it’s hard to find a time when Rousseau himself was a very “good” citizen, or a particularly dutiful one. That makes him perfectly normal among philosophers, but by his own lights, it makes him a “pernicious man.” Rousseau talked the talk, but when push came to shove, he walked (sometimes he ran). It turns out that all of Rousseau’s strange talk of the ecstasies and miracles of patriotism are things that are impossible in a modern globalized nation and that he knows it. Indeed, Rousseau, in the end, fled the laws that variously impinged on him. He turned out not to be the patriot either he or Montesquieu describes. How could he be? And what’s that, anyway?

Montesquieu essentially defines patriotism as Stockholm Syndrome. “Why do monks so love their order,” he asks. Because their order deprives them of all the ordinary passions save one:  love for the very thing that afflicts them. That’s patriotism. But Rousseau could never love his captor. Indeed, he had a hard enough time with benefactors. Just ask David Hume.

One possibility Montesquieu finally comes to, instead of the self-repressive patriotic orders of old, is an order that opens up a sphere of activity where a natural multiplicity of passions reigns. In short, it’s a commercial republic of separate powers–precisely the sort of thing the American framers would later seek to put into play. 

We ought to be chastened by Rousseau’s images of patriotism as one’s being carried away by a passion-attack. But he raises in his own way the same serious points that Montesquieu raises in the end. What’s preferable: the small patriotic community or the society open to a multiplicity of passions? Montesquieu answers that question in terms of what’s more humane, and it’s the latter.            

As Montesquieu and Rousseau both suggested in their own ways, the fabled feats of the ancient world would vanish in a globalizing world. Thomas Paine saw the same thing in 1776: “Commerce diminishes the spirit, both of patriotism and military defense,” he wrote. But this didn’t worry him. As he put it: “Our plan is commerce,” not “setting the world at defiance.”

Paine foreshadows a citizen-consumer more than citizen-soldier. And so it seems to me that Rousseau’s attacks on the bourgeois are wonderfully fun, but overwrought. Our own bourgeois society, after all, has never lacked in patriots willing to die–even without the sermons of a civil religion and the imaginary twists it takes to make a stranger in Tucson my sister.


Any “teaching” of patriotism in schools is precisely what we don’t need. What we need is education in active citizenship (or call it what you will). That surely includes education in America’s various modes of self-understanding, about which historian Michael Hattem has written so brilliantly in his Past and Prologue and about which political theorist Samuel Goldman has written, too, in his forthcoming and impressive After Nationalism. Indeed, for this The Constitutionalist series on patriotism, Gary Jeffrey Jacobsohn touches on the capaciousness of any patriotism for a “disharmonic” constitutional order. And this is essential, I think, to any meaningful and useful notion of patriotism in the present United States. This is one way that patriotism ought to be inclusive:  it must be open to the notion that different claimants look differently at the nation in question.

While Jacobsohn notices the many ways a constitutional order might be understood, Rogers Smith shows an American multiplicity of partisan-like loyalties. His work serves as a recognition that we are a people of peoples. As various peoples, we’ll make various claims on the nation. When we do so, we do so both as members of our community (more immediate) and as members of society (more abstract, but significant). There’s no “too many visions” in this sense, I suggest. There can’t be.

While Steven Smith makes the effort to rescue patriotism from its not-so-distant-cousin, ethno-nationalism, it remains difficult to see what is sufficiently inclusive about it. It’s too dismissive, for instance, of the meaning of the 1619 intervention. I think it hardly matters, for example, that the number was 20 slaves who landed on these shores in 1619. I don’t think that matters any more than that 39 men signed the Constitution. This view of patriotism, the family view, is implicitly closed off and uncomfortable with shifting narratives about America.

As to these “shifting narratives,” I don’t mean to be cagey. I simply don’t know that it has to be a particular thing and at any time. What we’re after, I suggest, is meaning and experience. Socially and politically speaking, that meaning and experience are derived from an engagement with America that issues in some kind of story we tell ourselves about that engagement.

After all, patriotism is also made of our stories. Those stories will change across space and time, and they’ll reflect the wishes and interests of their various authors. They always have. We need not be threatened by “identity” or its predecessor the “multicultural society.” These are things to be celebrated–even by conservatives, certainly by Americans. That is to say, we are well past the ethno-fantasy (alive in John Jay) of an America that will become a land of blooded Americans. Our pluribus long ago became too wily for that kind of unum. America has expanded since its founding–in principles, in geography, and in population. 

Rogers Smith says his understanding of “patriotic communities” has not been so well-received, but no one in the field has done more to open the door to a vision of America as a multiplicity of peoples. His work has shown how love of country might accommodate this multiplicity. 

I’d add that the language of the Declaration, itself, is better suited to the a-people-of-peoples view than it is to the more classical language of patriotism. Whatever they may have conceived “all men” to mean at the moment, the authors of the Declaration did seem to make it about us and our happiness. And that latter is an open-ended thing. It implies variety. It does not, for instance, say we’re entitled to the pursuit of objective happiness. Our religions and families might try to define what is happiness for us, but our political arrangement does not. Our interests will be as varied as our politics, and those interests will be variously pursued. A nation rooted in ideas and ideals can contain that multiplicity in a way that blood-and-soil societies just can’t. 

That one’s nation might contain Black Marxists and wearers of MAGA hats is, itself, I suggest, almost reason enough to venerate the thing. Each will advance her claims on a polity that will make one sometimes a winner and sometimes a loser. It’s in that act of participation, in the game of winning and losing, that citizens get a taste for the place that makes the game possible. But before I get too mushy, let me suggest that the patriotism we’re after needs gadflies. And so I close by coming back to the critical stance.


I’ve proposed that we drop the metaphors that suggest undying loyalty. I’ve tried to synthesize the pieces that come before mine in an effort to find something that reflects the complexity of the United States. I’ve suggested, in part following Steven Smith, that we think of patriotism in terms of its object. That’s America in this context, and following Rogers Smith and Jacobsohn, I wanted to emphasize its variety of potential meanings. Finally, drawing from the critical stance implied in Rogers Smith’s view and the hints of which I tried to draw from Lincoln, I wanted to insist that American patriotism must include the critical stance. 

I find a position of a critical patriotism captured best maybe in James Baldwin. In his Notes of a Native Son (1955), he writes: “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” There’s a reason Cornel West calls him a “Black American Socrates,” and while it might be a bit much to ask for a nation of Socrateses, it’s probably not too much to ask that we love our country with a critical eye. Patriotism won’t fall into ethnic loyalties and groupthink so easily if we have active gadflies and a space for them. That’s why it seems especially strange for intellectuals to enter into a pro-patria-do-or-die mode. They ought to be the gadflies. 

So let me try out the gadfly bit myself at the very close and say that, in truth, I wonder if we even have a patriotism problem. Is there too little of it? How is one supposed to know? What I do think is that efforts to rescue it, like Steven Smith’s latest book, or efforts simply to reflect on it, like this The Constitutionalist series, are essential–not because I’m convinced that patriotism needs any help, far from it, but because these things have us dwell anew on the object of our love.

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