Instilling Patriotism Then and Now

Published July 12, 2004

VFW Magazine, June/July 2004

The other day I ran across an old book with an enduring message — a nation without patriots cannot long endure. The 400-page volume, Manual of Patriotism, with an American flag on the cover was published 1n 1900 by the New York State department of schools.

At that time, New York, indeed all America, was receiving tens of thousands of European immigrants and the major institution for teaching them English and American history was the public school system.

Many of the immigrants were inspired by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”




In 1900, our flag had only 45 stars; Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii had not yet entered the Union. Two years before, Admiral George Dewey had humbled the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and Teddy Roosevelt had marched his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba. America was flexing its muscles as a new great power and the great majority of its citizens were unashamedly patriotic. This was especially true of our public school teachers.

The Manual of Patriotism, addressed to those teachers, abounds with suggestions for fostering love of country. The public schools were expected to teach respect for America’s Founders, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the brave heroes who had died in their country’s wars. Solid patriotism, said the Superintendent of Schools, could best be fostered by teaching pupils to respect the flag and to learn about American history. The Manual reflected the unashamed patriotism of the famous McGuffey Readers that were widely used from 1880 to 1910.

Specifically, the Manual urged teachers to open the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the singing of a patriotic song. Pupils should be taught to revere the flag, commit to memory patriotic quotations, and study the lives of great American patriots

Young Americans should also observe patriotic events, including Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), Washington’s birthday (February 22), Flag Day (June 14), Independence Day (July 4), and memorial events for those who died in American wars. Teachers were encouraged to take their pupils to historic places such as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Gettysburg. (Teachers in those days would be shocked to learn that less than a century later the national holidays given Washington and Lincoln by act of Congress would be merged into one Presidents’ Day.)

Understandably, the Manual, sensitive to “the separation of church and state,” did not address religion directly. But among the patriotic songs it recommended, several mentioned God: “America” (better known as “My Country, ’Tis of Thee”) refers to God as “the author of liberty”; “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” repeatedly exalts “Our God is marching on”; and “The Star-Spangled Banner” says “in God is our trust!”

A century ago patriotism, morality, and God seemed to coexist comfortably in our schools and in society generally. America is bigger than any sect, interest, or faction. Our nation, as Lincoln said in his first inaugural address on the eve of the Civil War, consists of “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, [that] will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as they surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”




For the first half of the 20th century, patriotism and respect for the flag were held in high esteem by virtually all Americans. Of course there were cynics and those drawn by alien ideologies who scoffed at visible expressions of patriotism.

When I was an elementary pupil in York, Pennsylvania, in the early 1930s, the school day began with a pledge of allegiance to the flag, recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and the reading of ten verses from the Old or New Testament by the teacher — with no comment. This respect for God and country drew no public protest.

But in the following decades, America became more diverse and more secular. Some intellectuals asserted that the schools had no right to “teach religion,” and some made light of conspicuous examples of patriotism.

To counter these pressures, the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. This acknowledgment of a higher power has been controversial ever since, though there is little objection to “In God We Trust” on our coins.

By the time my two sons went to elementary school in Chevy Chase, Maryland, in the 1950s, things had changed. The school day was opened with the pledge, each pupil holding his right hand over his heart, but the Lord’s Prayer was not recited and certainly no one read from the Bible. Their teachers, of course, taught virtues such as honesty and good citizenship.




Since the rebellious 1960s, many traditional American virtues have been questioned by radical college students, some of whom even referred to their country as “Amerika.” Other radicals blamed violence and poverty in the Third World on “American militarism, imperialism, and greed.”

These “new barbarians,” as former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, called them, spawned a generation of radical professors in our colleges. And on a broader canvas a kind of “political correctness” that scoffed at Middle American virtues has permeated our universities and the elite media. For many of these cynics, patriotism seems to be “the last refuge of a scoundrel,” to quote Samuel Johnson.

This virus of excessive self-criticism has also affected our public schools. Some pupils refuse to recite the pledge or salute the flag. Many American history text have been distorted to reflect current trends and fashionable causes, such as extreme feminism.




Perhaps the segment of American society least affected by “political correctness” are the brave and patriotic veterans of all our wars. What a contrast they are to the mood in many of today’s public schools, to say nothing of our colleges, where the visible symbols of patriotism are slighted, shunted aside, or even ridiculed.

Of course, patriotism cannot be measured by the number of flags billowing in the breeze, the fervor of military parades, or the wearing of a lapel flag. Patriotism lies much deeper, in the heart. It often finds expression in quiet deeds of our veterans, who are custodians of patriotic devotion that reaches beyond parades and public ceremonies.

Last October, for example, true patriotism was demonstrated by a group of elderly veterans in Greenville, South Carolina. For months, they worked as volunteers to clear the tangled underbrush from an abandoned cemetery that held fallen heroes from World Wars I and II and of the Korean War. The veterans involved the community by persuading Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and local landscapers to donate tools, lumber, and sod to renovate the sacred site.

In my darker moments, I am sometimes tempted to think of American veterans as the last bastion of patriotism. They are certainly patriotic in all the important ways — from revering the flag to being good citizens. Their very lives have validated courage and love of country.

Fortunately, veterans are not the only true American patriots. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, revealed the vast reservoir of patriotism across the land. Flags by the thousands sprouted from every hamlet and city across the land. That was over two years ago. There are fewer flags now, but one can only hope that the love of this country by its citizens young and old will never die.

True patriotism, of course, acknowledges America’s virtues as well as its imperfections. In “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies,” we sing, “America, America, God mend thine every flaw.”

Most Read

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Sign up to receive EPPC's biweekly e-newsletter of selected publications, news, and events.

Upcoming Event |

The Promise and Peril of Civic Renewal: Richard John Neuhaus, Peter L. Berger, and “To Empower People”


Your support impacts the debate on critical issues of public policy.

Donate today