Bonds of Affection: Americans Define Their Patriotism
Edited by John Bodnar Princeton University Press.
339 pp., $55 ($16.95 paper)
In his first inaugural address, delivered in 1861, Abraham Lincoln sought to keep the Union from disintegrating into civil war by appealing to the "bonds of affection" holding the nation together. Like Lincoln, most of us cherish the bonding effects of patriotism and are moved by its powerful force, but what precisely is it?
The concept is devilishly elusive yet immensely important. Even if we can agree that patriotism fundamentally involves love for and loyalty to one's nation, where does it come from? And is it in danger of disappearing amid the fragmenting demands of multiculturalism, interest group politics, and hyphenated-Americanism?
Such questions prompted this interesting collection of articles written by 15 scholars, mostly historians. "Bonds of Affection" examines how Americans have professed and practiced different notions of patriotism.
The subjects range from the efforts during the Revolutionary era to craft a mythic patriotism for an infant nation to the different ways in which patriotism has manifested itself among women, wage laborers, and African Americans during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Other articles discuss the relationship of religion to patriotism, the cult of the flag, the role of patriotic organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the emergence of a "neoconservative patriotism" during the Reagan years, and the awkward military associations connected with President Clinton.
The variety of topics reflects the authors' unsurprising recognition that Americans have developed complex and often controversial notions of what patriotism entails. As editor John Bodnar observes, patriotism in the United States initially found its most inspiring expression in an abstraction: the ideal of a democratic and egalitarian society.
Over time, however, this unifying democratic ideal has lost ground to more particular loyalties based on gender, ethnic, or religious associations. In exploring such diverse perspectives, "Bonds of Affection" helps broaden our understanding of what factors converged to splinter and at times degrade American concepts of patriotism.
As the trauma and bitterness of the Civil War faded, for instance, many Americans, especially former military officers, sought to reunify the country by appealing to the valor displayed by the combatants of both sides.
The outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 served as a powerful unifying event, bringing together soldiers from North and South, and in the process prompting one Northern leader to announce that there was now "a new Union, no Northerners, no Southerners, but Americans all."
By the end of the 19th century, Confederate and Union veterans were attending common reunions. In 1906, the Memorial Day holiday was modified to include recognition of Confederate soldiers.
Six years later, in 1912, the Daughters of the American Revolution invited the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) to hold a joint annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The vice president of the UDC explained how patriotism could support both the living Union and the memory of a courageous Confederacy.
"Southern women, American women," she declared, instilled in their children "the loftiest patriotism to glory in, to honor and support the Stars and Stripes, yet fold close to their hearts and swear eternal allegiance to a blood-stained banner forever furled."
President William Howard Taft delivered the keynote address to the gathering. Amid an overflowing hall festooned with Confederate and American flags, he rejoiced in the nation's "common heritage of courage and glorious sacrifice."
As Cecilia O'Leary points out, this celebration of a reunited nation shifted the public meaning of patriotism away from civic virtue and democratic idealism to personal valor and martial glory. A "male warrior" model of patriotism emerged at the end of the 19th century to help rationalize American imperial expansion into the Caribbean and east Asia.
In the process, it also helped undermine the public memory of the Civil War as a struggle for civil rights. In 1913, at the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, new President Woodrow Wilson praised the "blood and sacrifice of multitudes of unknown men" on both sides who fought "to make a nation." He made no mention of slavery.
Not all of the other selections are so interesting or so sharply focused. At times, the professorial prose in "Bonds of Affection" becomes a noisy shuffling of note cards, and a few of the authors let their own ideological biases run amok.
Surprisingly, there is no mention of the Olympics and the role of international athletic competition as a catalyst for patriotic fervor.
But such quibbles are beside the point. This book is worthy of sustained interest because it offers provocative insights into the vexed nature of our affection for the American republic.
In the end, what we need is an engaged, yet measured sense of loyalty. Blind patriotism too often degenerates into chest-thumping jingoism. Civic indifference, on the other hand, atrophies the sinews binding the body politic.
Carl Schurz, the German-born political leader from Missouri, struck the right balance when he declared on the floor of the Senate in 1872: "Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right."
*David Emory Shi, president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., is a noted historian and author of "The Simple Life: Plain Living and High Thinking in American Culture."