Westmont Magazine Uncompromising Patriotism and Patriotic Compromise: The Ambiguous American Experience
Richard Pointer, Professor of History, Reflects on David McCullough’s Talk for the Westmont Foundation Lecture Series February 15, 2006
How do patriotism and compromise go together? What relationship have they had in American history? How might they fit together today?
When it comes to deciding if or when compromise has been in the best interest of our nation, we Americans have been of many minds. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that our answer has depended on the moment under review, so we have a very mixed or ambiguous historical record on the matter.
David McCullough’s last two books, 1776 and John Adams, help to illustrate that ambiguity. Both books make clear the tenuousness of the patriots’ cause in the Revolutionary War, especially in 1776. As he again emphasized in his talk here, there was nothing inevitable about the ultimate American victory in the war. On the contrary, there was every good reason to think then, and now in retrospect, that the patriots would lose, and sooner rather than later. That defeat didn’t occur they attributed to a combination of many factors including good fortune, divine providence, British mistakes, and the leadership and perseverance of George Washington and a few of his aides.
At many points in that mostly disastrous year for the patriot side, British officials approached the rebels with peace terms. Given their bleak circumstances, it would have been perfectly understandable if the Continental Army and the Continental Congress had folded their tents and accepted one of the offers made by the mother country. Certainly there were plenty of individuals in the Continental Army who were making that choice for themselves that year by deserting and going home or going over to the other side. Thomas Paine’s reference to “sunshine patriots” that December was no mere rhetorical flourish. We know, of course, that Washington and his ever-declining army didn’t throw in the towel, didn’t accept British overtures, no matter how bad things got because to do so would have meant giving up on independence (it might have also meant giving up their lives). To compromise at that point would have been too great an admission of failure, too great a sacrifice of principle.
Or at least that is how we see it in retrospect. What trajectory America or American-British relations might have taken if the Revolution had ended with military defeat in 1776 is hard to say. What isn’t hard to say is that we Americans have come to see the Revolution and its success as the result of an uncompromising patriotism. Only by standing firm in their absolute commitment to the new nation did Washington, Adams, and others win the day. If anything, Mr. McCullough’s two books enhance our awareness of just how great a moment of uncompromising patriotism 1776 should represent in American historical memory.
Beyond that year, McCullough’s John Adams gives us glimpses of what patriotism looked like in the succeeding decades as the new republic began to take shape. No event was more important in forming and framing the character of the new nation than the writing of the Constitution in 1787. Adams remained in London as the American minister to England while 55 other men took up the task of revising and replacing the inadequate Articles of Confederation. When he received his copy of the new constitution, Adams was very pleased with it, though he would have preferred that the presidency receive more power (I think Adams has long since received his wish and then some). Over time, Adams would come to learn more of the details of what got hammered out that summer in Philadelphia. Many of his own ideas got incorporated into the new frame of government but so, too, did the ideas of many delegates with whom Adams sharply disagreed.
The directions the framers should take the new plan of government were anything but self-evident. Instead, only an arduous process of debate and negotiation yielded a document that most could support and had a reasonable chance of being ratified by a sufficient number of states. In other words, what was crucial to the success of the Constitutional Convention was the willingness and ability of the framers to forge compromise. In fact, ever since, we’ve referred to some of their crucial decisions with names like “The Great Compromise” and “The 3/5 Compromise.” Much of the framers’ genius we say resided in their recognition that the future viability and stability of the nation depended on their finding sufficient common ground and constructing compromises upon it. Their acts in 1787 were no less patriotic or essential to the future well-being of the republic than what transpired in 1776.
So here we have the two great founding moments of our history as a nation. One we celebrate as a great act of uncompromising patriotism and the other we celebrate as a great act of patriotic compromise. Looking more closely at these events and years, we find they contain plenty of elements of the other. That is, in 1776, Washington and other patriot leaders had to make all kinds of compromises to keep their cause afloat, some laudable, some not, even while not making the ultimate compromise to make peace with Britain. And in 1787, there were points on which the majority of delegates would not budge and remained uncompromising in their positions, even as they carved out the grand compromises mentioned a moment ago. Still, the larger point remains, that how we Americans view the relationship of patriotism and compromise in our history has been a mixed or ambiguous bag.
I can illustrate this claim further by referring to another contribution of David McCullough to recent Americans’ historical consciousness, his wonderful narration of the Ken Burns’ series on the Civil War. The first episode rapidly covered the background and causes of the war. At one point, author Shelby Foote said the Civil War came about because of the failure of Americans to do what they were great at — reaching compromise. Foote no doubt had in mind the series of compromises formulated in the antebellum period, such as the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 that in his view had allowed the nation to avoid war at earlier crisis moments. Yet in virtually the next scene, historian Barbara Fields comments that the war came about because the nation for too long, stretching back to the Constitution itself, had compromised or sacrificed its own ideals at the altar of slavery. So here are two experts telling us precisely opposite things about how compromise related to our great national crisis in the mid-19th century, the one saying that the lack of compromise caused the war, the other saying the war resulted from too much compromise.
What are we to do, then, with this ambiguous past on how patriotism and compromise fit together for Americans? Maybe the first thing to say is that the historical record I have recited could extend into and through the 20th century and beyond to our own day. All of us could probably cite examples of what we consider heroic and regrettable compromises, of noble and ill-advised refusals to compromise from our own lifetimes in America. And our lists of what those occasions were might coincide or they might diverge as much as Foote’s and Fields’ views on the coming of the Civil War. That perhaps should help us to see that what it means to love our country well — that is, to be patriotic — will sometimes, perhaps much of the time, look differently to me and my neighbor — that is, you — both as we gaze into the American past and as we confront our own moment in time.
Respect for those differences may seem to be an obvious American ideal, but in the heat of a verbal battle or amid the intensity of war, our national history testifies to the fact that even the most essential American ideals can be sorely tested and compromised in the worst sort of way. The possibility that the demands of patriotism will not look the same to all of us also suggests the likelihood that I may occasionally get it wrong when it comes to knowing how to love my country well.
A humble patriotism might therefore be in order. That’s not to be confused with a weak patriotism or an indifferent patriotism. Good citizenship requires humility, not apathy. David McCullough has helped us to see that George Washington knew that lesson well. His ability to admit his own mistakes and to overlook the errors of others was essential to his extraordinary leadership. Such generosity of spirit compromised neither his integrity nor the cause of the American people.
McCullough himself illustrates the same lesson. His artful use of his writing and storytelling gifts has produced books that go beyond informing us to inspiring us, not through some Pollyanna-ish version of American history but by capturing human beings in all their glories and in all their frailties. That’s an act of public service, of good citizenship, of true patriotism, a patriotism that extends beyond our national confines to a broader world community that not only knows America better but something more about the human experience and human nature in general.
And therein lies another possible quality or type of patriotism worth considering — a kind of cosmopolitan patriotism that sees love of country in concert with allegiance to broader human communities and concerns. Practicing that variety of patriotism would likely confront us with a whole set of new questions about how patriotism and compromise fit together. But as the brief history I have traced here indicates, we Americans have proved to be a resourceful bunch when it comes to knowing how to tackle that task. And so mutual respect, humility, and allegiances both local and global strike me as apt traits of a 21st century patriotism that could be a worthy successor to the heritage that David McCullough has written so well about and a crucial asset as we seek to meet the responsibilities and challenges of citizenship in our own day.