It is the birthright of all Americans to be patriotic in their own way, something worth remembering at a moment of great political division. Instead of challenging each other’s love of country, we should accept that deep affection can take different forms.
There is, of course, the option of setting politics aside altogether on the Fourth of July. Anyone who loves baseball, hot dogs, barbecues, fireworks and beaches as much as I do has no problem with that. Still, I’m not a fan of papering over our disagreements. It is far better to face and discuss them with at least a degree of mutual respect.
When it comes to the varieties of patriotism, I’d make the case that some of us look more toward the past and others to the future. Some Americans speak of our nation’s manifest virtues as rooted in old values nurtured by a deposit of ideas that we must preserve against all challengers. Others focus on our country’s proven capacity for self-correction and change.
As a result, one stream of reverence for our founders flows from a belief that they have set down timeless truths. The alternative view lifts them up as political and intellectual adventurers willing to break with old systems and accepted ways of thinking.
These are broad categories, and many citizens are no doubt drawn simultaneously to aspects of being American that I have put on opposing sides of my past/future, continuity/change ledgers.
Nonetheless, most of us tilt in one direction or the other. Standing at either end of this continuum makes you no less of an American.
Eighty years ago, Franklin D. Roosevelt went to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home in Charlottesville, to offer an Independence Day address insisting that the inventors of our experiment created a nation that would never fear change. He spoke nearly seven years after the onset of the Great Depression in the election year that would end with his biggest landslide victory. FDR was in the midst of the boldest and most radical wave of reform that the New Deal would produce, and you can hear this in his speech. It still serves as a rallying cry for those of us who see our founders as champions of repair, renewal and reform.
What, he asked, had the founders done? “They had broken away from a system of peasantry, away from indentured servitude,” Roosevelt explained. “They could build for themselves a new economic independence. Theirs were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be. And so, as Monticello itself so well proves, they used new means and new models to build new structures.”
Not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be: Thus the creed of the reformer.
As for Jefferson himself, Roosevelt said, he “applied the culture of the past to the needs and the life of the America of his day. His knowledge of history spurred him to inquire into the reason and justice of laws, habits and institutions. His passion for liberty led him to interpret and adapt them in order to better the lot of mankind.”
Here again, the purpose of the past is to serve the present and future. History is about testing institutions against standards and adapting them, as Roosevelt put it, to “enlarge the freedom of the human mind and to destroy the bondage imposed on it by ignorance, poverty and political and religious intolerance.”
There is a straight line between Roosevelt’s understanding of our tradition and President Obama’s as he expressed it in his 2015 speech on the 50th anniversary of the voting rights march in Selma.
“What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished,” Obama declared, “that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?”
No doubt many Americans celebrate a narrative on our national holiday that has a more traditional ring than FDR’s or Obama’s. We can jointly honor our freedom to argue about this but perhaps agree on one proposition: If we had been unwilling in the past to embrace Lincoln’s call to “think anew and act anew” and to find FDR’s “new means” and “new models,” we might not have made it to our 240th birthday.