Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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“What We Obtain Too Cheap, We Esteem Too Lightly…”

Res Publica

July 2003

by Brinton Brafford

It was not too long after the horrific events of September 11th that the American flag began to appear everywhere. It started at Ground Zero where exhausted and battle-worn firefighters draped a dirty, worn, and ripped flag over a few collapsed beams, imitating a scene decades earlier at Iwo Jima. Over the next few days flags could be found everywhere and stores could not keep them on the shelves. They appeared in store and office windows and they appeared on car antennas. Indeed, it seemed that everywhere one looked there was an American flag. Patriotic home décor such as red, white, and blue bedspreads and Uncle Sam candleholders were equally popular. More extreme individuals went so far as to get patriotic tattoos, and have their cars detailed to show images of flags and bald eagles. Most Americans seemed to agree that everyone was becoming more patriotic. But what exactly is patriotism? Is it flying flags, parades and hoopla, or is it something more?

More than a year later the flags have all but disappeared, the home décor has been substituted for something newer and more fashionable, and the only remnants of this supposed patriotism that remain are the permanent tattoos, and the painted images on cars that are leftover from a time gone by. A common definition of patriotism is love for one’s country. Most Americans will openly and freely admit that they love their country. However, patriotism can call for great sacrifices, grim determination, courage, and perhaps even the sacrifice of one’s own life. If you ask the same group of Americans who would be willing to give up their prosperous and happy lives to die for their country, many would be but many more would find their own self-preservation too strong to conquer and would not.

Most parents admit that they would die for their children because there is a natural tie that each person has with his family. But sacrificing or dying for one’s country requires a commitment to something more removed and distant. Instead of sacrificing for something personal, patriotism requires sacrificing for the public and common good. To die for one’s country would be to die for unknown people and future generations that have no connection to the person making the sacrifice.

Immediately following our most recent “Day of Infamy” it was not uncommon to overhear fellow students talking boldly about joining the military and avenging the American lives lost. This is closer to actual patriotism than waving flags and hoopla because these students were actually thinking about the public good and what they could do to contribute to it. Instead of waving flags in an effort to show support for their country they were actually coming to terms with the idea of dying for it.

Our founders were devoted to the ideals of freedom and equality, and what made them so extraordinary was that what they were doing was unheard of before. The founders wrote in the Declaration of Independence that they were going to ignore the “ties of our common kindred.” They ignored and severed the natural familial ties they held with Britain, and they replaced them with a devotion to a few self-evident truths that they believed were applicable to all people and all times. These were truths that the world had never realized before, and if their bold experiment were to succeed they would be truths that the world could never forget.

Prosperous men who could have lived out their lives happily signed their names to a document in which they pledged their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor.” Many of them would be called to sacrifice what they pledged to each other that day. This new idea of a country tied together in their loyalty to a set of principles helped to create a new nation. But after many losing battles it seemed that many Americans were ready to give up and reconcile with Great Britain. It was at about this time, when Americans were questioning their patriotism that Thomas Paine wrote The American Crisis, which reminded all Americans that patriotism should always remain a necessary part of this new regime. Paine wrote, “what we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: tis’ dearness only that gives everything its value… the heart that feels not now is dead: the blood of his children will curse his cowardice, who shrinks back at a time when a little might have saved the whole, and made them happy. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection.”

A patriotic man smiles in times of trouble, he gathers strength from his distress, and he grows brave as he reflects upon the fact that the future of his nation and unborn generations are counting on him. He knows his country is depending upon him and as a man of honor he cannot let her down. A patriotic man is grim and determined to fight until the end whether that means the end of the day, the end of the battle or the end of his life. It is this fortitude, strength, courage and determination that gives meaning to the term patriotism. It is easy to wave flags, but it is something else for a person to be willing to get dirty in the trenches dodging bullets, risking his life and refusing to quit for what his country means not just to him but for what it will mean for future generations. His children will not curse his cowardice for cowardice is a word that the patriot does not understand.

Brinton Brafford is a senior from Mansfield, Ohio, majoring in Political Science.

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