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An inquiry into the nature and substance of American patriotism.

First, Berns (Freedom, Virtue, and the First Amendment, not reviewed) lays down the groundwork: In the US, the Constitution frames our unalienable rights—our private rights—of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. As soon as we agreed to be governed, however, and to enter into civil society, that self-interest was necessarily tempered. As the first nation in history to enshrine the rights of man, it has fallen as our lot to champion those rights, marking “a unique character of American patriotism: the devotion not only to country but also to its principles.” Not blindly obedient like the Spartans, Americans have always envisioned theirs to be a thinking man's country, wherein the citizens are not simply subjects of authority but, rather, lovers of democracy and practitioners of self-restraint. But when the state no longer appears to be safeguarding our private rights, how will our liberty of conscience tell us to act? The Civil War provided one such example, and Vietnam another, and Berns doesn't prove that following the law is always in the best interest of the state—on the contrary, the state can be strengthened by dissent. But he arbitrarily conflates common law and divine law (they could just as easily be disentangled), and he engages in a rather hollow argument in an attempt to show that the founding fathers respected the humanity of African-Americans—after which he writes a trenchant chapter on the relative patriotism of Frederick Douglass.

A thought-provoking essay.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-226-04437-8
Page count: 146pp
Publisher: Univ. of Chicago
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2001