The last refuge of scoundrels

A remarkable feature of the United States of America — from a European perspective, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century — has been the comparative vigour and enthusiasm of its patriotism in comparison with those nations of the old world from which so much of its population has been derived. This is not really terribly surprising. The nations of Europe in the twentieth century, with only a handful of exceptions, have either been stained with the foulest crimes or humiliatingly defeated in total war. In the aftermath, even the victors discovered that the global power with which they were endowed at the beginning of the century was dissolving in their hands, and were compelled to reflect upon the unsavoury and shameful means that they had so often employed to obtain and preserve that power in the first place. 

The United States, in contrast, has basked in the “American Century”, a triumphant progress to hegemonic power through victory in two world wars, and then, contrary to widespread expectation, in the Cold War and (at least in the second and third of those struggles) against the arms and intrigues of a monstrous tyranny. 

But is it merely circumstance which has preserved the fervent love of country in the breasts of Americans? Would defeat have afflicted them as much as the Europeans or is there something about America prior to these divergent experiences that renders its citizens innately more patriotic? The USA is, of course, a republic; and one might suppose that a res publica would generate a more powerful sense of civic ownership in the populace. St Thomas himself observes of the Romans that: 

“as Sallust relates: ‘The Roman city, once liberty was won, waxed incredibly strong and great in a remarkably short time.’ For it frequently happens that men living under a king strive more sluggishly for the common good, inasmuch as they consider that what they devote to the common good, they do not confer upon themselves but upon another, under whose power they see the common goods to be. But when they see that the common good is not under the power of one man, they do not attend to it as if it belonged to another, but each one attends to it as if it were his own.”

Here, the USA differs from France, in that its republican form and patriotic narrative, which legitimate its origin, meet and have almost always met near universal acceptance in the people as a whole. Inveterate Tories have always had Canada to go to.

But what of the three groups whose interests seemed least served by the provincial dethronement of George III — Native Americans, African Americans and Catholics? It is often forgotten that, among the grievances contained in the American Declaration of Independence were the granting of religious liberty to the Catholics of Quebec, “abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province” and the efforts of His Majesty’s Government to protect the Native Americans, “the merciless Indian Savages” from further expropriation by the colonists. Jefferson’s efforts to blame George III for supposedly forcing the poor colonists to own slaves were just a little too preposterous and were left out of the final version.

Catholics were rapidly integrated into the new republic. The earliest flags of the revolution may have borne the legend “no popery”, but the need for an alliance with still-Catholic France precluded the retention of this theme. The hypocrisy of (in Samuel Jonson’s words) “the drivers of negroes” letting out “yelps for liberty” eventually issued in a bloody civil war. However, the final emancipation, and then (so many years later) the civil rights movement, allowed the fact that this was hypocrisy to facilitate the argument that the eventual abolition of the civil disabilities of African Americans was a cleansing act, by which the USA had finally become true to principles it had always espoused. 

Whether or not Native Americans have ever become reconciled to the loss of their homeland, they have been shunted off to various reservations, endowed with a nebulous “sovereignty” and, in any case, represent only two percent of a nation of 330 million people. So, that (it would seem) is that.

US children pledge allegiance to their flag and the republic for which it stands every day. A very large proportion of US homes are bedecked with the national flag all year round. The spontaneous fireworks in every neighbourhood on the Fourth of July each year make it sound as if a small invasion is in progress. The US armed forces are a huge presence in national life, in a way Britain has not experienced for well over half a century.

At least, that is how it seemed until recently. In the last decade or so, a movement has arisen to uproot the vital sources of American patriotism and to introduce into the collective consciousness of Americans the same sort of self-loathing that afflicts the nations of Europe. The singing of the US National Anthem at sporting events has been problematised by the phenomenon of “taking the knee”, oppressive policing has been declared to be the only possible kind, and a significant effort has been made to shift the founding moment of the nation from 1776 to 1619 — the year the first African slaves arrived in Virginia. Most toxic of all, the claim is advanced that the driving force behind the decision to declare independence was the historic British decision in Somerset v Stewart (1772) that slavery does not exist in English law. This momentous precedent, it is alleged, necessitated a shift on the part of the colonists, against George III and Parliament, from the claim that the imposition upon them of taxation without representation was contrary to the historic rights of English subjects (specifically, article 12 of Magna Carta) to the claim that “the laws of nature and of nature’s god” simply entitled them to go their own way if they felt like it (Romans 13 notwithstanding). 

How much truth is there in these claims? They are undoubtedly motivated by something more than a mere thirst of for truth and justice. The left in the US has found the virulent patriotism of the United States a significant obstacle to its “progress” and is clearly delighted by the recent setbacks to national piety. But the fact that bad people have bad motives for making a claim does not of itself make the claim false. 

More interesting, however, is the question why it should matter. No doubt there is truth in both the black and the golden legend of the USA, just as there is in the stories that every nation tells about itself. The foundation of the USA was an unusually self-conscious and datable affair. Its birth and the words pronounced over its cradle demand of its people a more explicit and philosophical loyalty than most nations in this world. Aspersions cast upon the world view or moral fibre of Clovis, Vercingetorix, Alfred the Great, Fergus Mór or Henry the Fowler are unlikely to unsettle a Frenchman, Briton or German in quite the same way as the defamation of Washington, Jefferson or Adams would unsettle most Americans. But Clovis has an advantage over Washington. When already the father of his people, the sins of the Frankish warrior were washed away in the sacred waters of baptism and he was grafted into the mystical body of Our Lord and Saviour; and what is more important still, his people rose with him from the font. The significance of the temporal was redeemed but relativized in that moment and a deeper loyalty and a higher judge was established by the raising of the victorious banner of the Cross as the standard of his armies. 

As St John Henry Newman observed:

“Earthly kingdoms are founded, not in justice, but in injustice. They are created by the sword, by robbery, cruelty, perjury, craft and fraud. There never was a kingdom, except Christ’s, which was not conceived and born, nurtured and educated in sin. There never was a state but was committed to acts and maxims which it is its crime to maintain, and its ruin to abandon. What monarchy is there but began in invasion or usurpation? What revolution has been effected without self-will, violence, or hypocrisy? What popular government but is blown about by every wind, as if it had no conscience and no responsibilities? What dominion of the few but is selfish and unscrupulous? Where is military strength without the passion for war? Where is trade without the love of filthy lucre, which is the root of all evil?”

Just as the Christian is able to value himself without self-deception — as a sinner, but a sinner for whom Christ died — so the establishment of the Gospel bestows upon a nation and the citizens of that nation a like freedom to love, without delusion, a nature and a people that Christ has redeemed. There is a particular fittingness to the enthronement of Christ as King within a republic for, just as the consecrated sister is espoused to an invisible bridegroom, so may the baptised polity which is devoid of an earthly monarch say with the Prophet Isaiah “the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king: He will save us” (Isaiah 33:22).