Commentary Magazine


The Roots of American Loyalty, by Merle Curti

Changing Fashions in Patriotism

The Roots Of American Loyalty.
by Merle Curti.
New York, Columbia University Press, 1946. 267 pp. $3.00.

Most historians of American thought are confronted with at least two possible approaches to their themes: they can concentrate upon the idea in its relationship to the individuals expressing it, with particular stress upon the motivations involved; or else they can center upon the ebb and flow of ideas in a broad historical panorama. Professor Curti has adopted the latter approach as the most practical for his particular task, and has based his account of the historical evolution of American loyalty “on an extensive investigation of materials, published and unpublished, letters, files of newspapers and periodicals, government documents, Fourth of July orations, and fugitive pieces, on belles lettres, on works of art, and on the few secondary reports on American patriotism.”

On the other hand, such an approach tells us very little about what motivates patriots. Professor Curti, absorbed as he is in the exposition of numerous conceptions of American patriotism, is somewhat reluctant to actually analyze his theme. He does not argue a thesis as did Beard in The Idea of National Interest. But this does not mean that Professor Curti is uncritical. He is aware of the uses to which patriotism has been put by predatory interests; disagrees with the conventional Marxist approach to nationalism as an oversimplified interpretation of a highly pervasive influence; stresses that the symbols of, patriotism mean one thing to the privileged and another to the underprivileged. However, roots of American loyalty run deeper than the layers of top soil that Professor Curti himself reveals. They lie imbedded in individual personalities, and to unearth them would require a more extended biographical approach. What are the “roots” of American loyalty, what the key conceptions that for generations have inspired Americans to love of country, to take pride in it, and to make sacrifices for it? These “roots” are both constant and changing. Enduring in the sense that “the so-called instinctive basis of patriotism; its religious foundations and associations; the invitation to loyalty implicit in the economic resources, strength, and unity of the nation; the awareness of a unique geography and people, of a unique past and a unique future—” all of these are operative in the present as they were in the past.

There are, however, fashions in patriotism that have altered with the character of American thinking. The impact of the ideas of Hegel, Spencer, and Freeman upon post-Civil War America fostered the growth of the organic conception of the state which, in turn, was basic to an integral type of nationalism that threatened to displace the older, humanitarian variety. But whereas this newer conception of the state as a symbol of American loyalty was exploited for reactionary and predatory aims, there was a parallel tendency among liberal thinkers to advance a more humane interpretation of the meaning of America. Whitman and Lowell, among others, not only denied the claim of integral nationalists that the aims of the organic state transcended those of the individuals who composed it, but unqualifiedly affirmed the older and more liberal doctrine that men possess natural rights and that the nation is only a convenient instrument for the realization of these rights. Additional criticisms of the theory of integral nationalism were made by Josiah Royce, Mary P. Follett, and John Dewey, all of whom stressed the role of local and regional loyalties in developing national feeling of human value. These writers, and to their number might be added Horace Kallen, Julius Drachsler, and Randolph Bourne, were perturbed by the standardization of modern civilization and looked hopefully to the local color of the region or the culture of the ethnic group to counteract the tendency toward uniformity implicit in integral nationalism.

The Marxist Left delivered a devastating critique of American national feeling, condemning it as a capitalist instrument binding the masses to the naked reality of the class struggle. Veblen wrote of patriotism as serving predatory capital by providing it with “an over-all sanction and ideal to enlist the common people in its competitions with foreign industry and trade.” This indictment of American nationalism, however, was not popular with the working class. According to Professor Curti, the programs of liberal organizations such as the Populists, Single Taxers, the American Federation of Labor, all of whom made the traditional connection between patriotism and human well-being, appealed to American workers more than the negative attitude of the socialists.

Professor Curti also notes the tendency among New England scholars of the mid-19th century to claim a heritage from the Goths. But he fails to note the parallel trend to reject Anglo-Saxon Goths in favor of Norman Goths, or account for the fact that several decades later this trend was reversed and historians like John Fiske were willing to ascribe the sources of sectional and national greatness to their Anglo-Saxon heritage, and were either apologetic or forgetful about their Norman forbears.

Discussing the organic theory of the state, Professor Curti might well have afforded greater consideration to the major work of John W. Burgess. And writing of Woodrow Wilson’s humanitarian nationalism, he might well have pointed out that Wilson, early in his career, associated national well-being with the dominance of the Anglo-Saxon in America; that his later conception of America as a composite nation was in some measure a matter of political exigency. And dealing with the symbols and touchstones of American national feeling, the author perhaps underestimates the popularity of the melting-pot symbol. One aspect of his theme left almost entirely unexplored is the fascinating phenomenon of expatriation. A study of our more prominent expatriates should reveal an interesting, if negative, side of American patriotism.

There are many other points at which the present study could be amplified. This is inevitable in so slender a volume that tells so long a story; and understandable when we realize that Joseph Dorfman in tracing the history of American economic thought merely to the Civil War period consumed two volumes, each twice the size, and more, of Professor Curti’s slender monograph. Curti has drawn bold, accurate, and well-proportioned strokes across a broad, historical canvas. In so doing he was bound to miss some details of the story, but this is understandable in view of the substantial achievement of his book.

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