TOPICS > Politics

American Patriots

July 9, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


RAY SUAREZ: In the 21st century when we’re often told flags and borders and nations mean less and less, what should patriotism be? Roger Wilkins is a Pulitzer Prize winner and professor of history at George Mason University. His book is “Jefferson’s Pillow: The Founding Fathers and the Dilemma of Black Patriotism.” It examines the role of race and Slavery in embracing American patriotism. And Walter Berns is professor emeritus at Georgetown University and a resident scholarship at the American Enterprise Institute. His book is “Making Patriots.” It looks at the nature of patriotism and its place in American society as we enter that 21st century. Walter Berns, in this day and age, what’s patriotism for?

WALTER BERNS: I suppose it’s for the same thing as it was for in the very beginning. I wrote this book, in a way, to remind Americans who love their country naturally, give them good reasons why they should love it. I was interested that Roger’s book in a way does the same thing. There’s a marvelous statement on page 120 of his book in which he sort of confesses why he’s an American. I could have written that statement. I wish I had. But on the whole, my book is the… The purpose of it was not to address academics, but to address the general population, especially young people, and give them good reasons why they should love this country, because this country deserves to be loved.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you can turn on the nightly news and see pictures, horrifying pictures, coming from the Balkans of people who, we’re told, love their countries so totally and entirely that they don’t want anyone else to live there except a certain kind of people. What’s love of country rightly understood?

WALTER BERNS: Well, one of the things that is lovable about this country is it’s a country in which various kinds of people can live, confident that they’re going to live in peace with their neighbors, and religious differences don’t lead to, as they lead to the Balkans, for example, have led the Serbs and the Croats to kill each other because of something that started over a thousand years ago, a dispute between the two parts of the Catholic Church. We don’t have that sort of thing in this country, and we don’t have it in part because of the principles that we established in 1776, on the Fourth of July, 1776, and principles that are embodied in the Constitution that allow us to live in peace with each other. And that is something to treasure and something to love and something to celebrate.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Roger, when we look at those first principles, one of the big boulders in the road is what happened in the intervening centuries after those noble sentiments were written in 1776 to blacks living in America.

ROGER WILKINS: Well, you know, the experience that so many of us have, particularly when we are taught the Revolution, is Washington and Madison and Jefferson and the other southern patriots, Mason, they owned Slaves, and then the story is told in a way that makes the Revolution and everything that came before and after the acts of great white men, and blacks are excluded from the story. So that learning that history and then having the experience of being discriminated against as an American citizen, it’s almost as if you’re an organ transplanted into another body, and you’re being rejected by the body. And yet at some point I realized that, for the last 50 years, at least since I became the President of the NAACP student chapter at the University of Michigan back in my sophomore year of college, I’ve been working to try to make this country better. And that’s patriotic work.

WALTER BERNS: It sure is. It sure is.

ROGER WILKINS: And one of my lifelong mentors and heroes was Thurgood Marshall. Thurgood was a thoroughgoing American hero, patriot and hero. So I had to… When you go back and say let me make sense of the founding in a way that makes it accessible to me and perhaps to other black people so that I can get to the point where Walter is in his book, where he talks about the virtue of citizens being passed from generation to generation, but that virtue becoming weaker and weaker as it’s, if it’s not nourished properly; and, I, as a professor, I realize facing students it needs to be nourished. It needs badly to be nourished. And that’s another reason I wrote this book.

RAY SUAREZ: Is the act of being a black patriot in modern America a different act, a somewhat nuanced act because of the last 225 years and the burdens it asks to carry today and into the future?

ROGER WILKINS: I think that it is a nuanced act, but in the end it’s a fierce act of self-definition because there are lots of people who say, “you don’t belong here, you should go back, you should go away.” And you look at your slave ancestors and you say, “wait a minute: Look at what those people contributed to this country, and look what steadfast human beings they had to be in order to survive and to pass values on to me and to make me possible. This was their country. This is the place where they made their lifetime contribution. I can’t walk away from that.” And, in a sense, this is the mansion of my forefathers, in a very powerful and profound sense, and my pride in my ancestors really binds me not only to the country which they helped build, but to the principles that they believed would someday free them and their progeny. It’s my task to help make that come true.


WALTER BERNS: Of course, as you know, I have a chapter on the person I regard as one of the really great Americans, who happens to be a black American, and that’s Frederick Douglass. His struggle was one of the greatest of any person’s struggle in this country. What is so valuable about him, and why I think it’s important to read his writing and look at his career, is that he understood that this country was not the country that it was intended to be. That is to say, the principles of ’76 did not lead to the ending of slavery as they ought to have done. He devoted his life to make this country what it was supposed to be.

RAY SUAREZ: When you read so-called patriotic declarations from 150 years ago, apart from the language being dated, is there something different about love of country today from earlier times in America?

ROGER WILKINS: Oh, I think so. I think that in earlier times there was… As Walter points out, there was the really concerted effort to do patriotic education. The founders were these great marble statues. So there was recitation and there was… But now it’s far more nuanced, and there’s a lot of cynicism in this society, a lot of materialism, and a lot of people who aren’t engaged in acts of citizenship. They vote, some of them, and they complain. That’s about it.

WALTER BERNS: To pick up on something you began with this last time, Roger, having to do with, really, education in the past and education nowadays, it’s somewhat shocking, 50% of the American people aged 14, 15, 16, can’t put the Civil War within ten years of its actual date and so forth and so on. That’s all discouraging. In my day, we were given, really, a patriotic education. That was part of learning how to read and write. That has to some extent disappeared, which is deplorable.

RAY SUAREZ: Again, “Making Patriots,” by Walter Berns; “Jefferson’s Pillow,” by Roger Wilkins. Gentlemen, thank you both.

ROGER WILKINS: Thank you, Ray.