- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

So what did I see, just before Memorial Day, while driving to the office? In the lane to my left, a monstrous motorboat (it forced me nearer the curb) lumbering along behind a pickup truck, headed assuredly for the lake. That is where we now go to honor our nations war dead the lake, among other choice venues. Some brews, some sun, possibly some random thoughts about patriotism and sacrifice for liberty: So it goes in the third century of our independence; a time ripe, you might conclude, as would I, for this deft, often inspirational, essay on love of country, by one of Americas leading constitutional scholars.
Walter Berns, seemingly going strong at the American Enterprise Institute after a long and illustrious academic career, invites us to think with him concerning what it means to love the United States of America and to entertain, willingly, the prospect of dying for such a nation.
From which one shouldnt suppose that Mr. Berns beckons us to a stem-winding July Fourth oration, bracing as we might find such an occasion. "Making Patriots" is academically rich; it is likewise beautifully conversational, with intonations of the political science lecture rooms Mr. Berns for so long adorned. The book extends and builds on a Berns essay published a few years back in the Public Interest. There is much here worth pondering; the more so perhaps in a time when national boundaries appear almost in a state of collapse, or at the very least, extreme ventilation.
Love of country, Mr. Berns says, is something we accomplish differently than did the Greeks. We supposedly love ideals more than place. "What makes us 'one people is not where we were born but, rather, our attachment to those principles of government, namely, that all men are created equal insofar as they are equally endowed by natures God with the unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that the purpose of government is to 'secure these rights. "
Mr. Berns thus drags up his chair to an active and ongoing scholarly argument. Do we in fact love ideals more than place? Do we read the Declaration of Independence as our foundational document, or is the matter more complex, rooted in our whole moral tradition and in the common law? Down comes Mr. Berns hard on the Lincolnian side, just as a student of his work might expect. Lincoln "was the greatest speaker of words, the greatest orator, and, in his own way, the greatest poet this country has ever known, or is likely to know." He was "patriotisms poet." He "saved, and in the process, restored the Union in which the likes of Douglass could proudly be a patriot."
For the local patriotism of the Confederate South, exemplified by Robert E. Lee and his costly refusal to bear arms against Virginia, Mr. Berns has well, not disdain. More than anything else his attitude resembles puzzlement that old ties of fealty and family should trump "principles of government." Maybe not trump them even. Southern principles of government had at their heart fealty and family. "The little platoon to which we belong" is the operative phrase from Edmund Burke accent on "little."
Countries are large, families and localities small. The argument between patriotism, Father Abraham-style and Marse Robert-style, is unresolvable. Heritage may be the decisive factor. Mr. Berns own heritage Midwestern and 19th-century immigrant tilts his viewpoint inevitably northward, in just the way convention long-tipped American patriotism.
Such tipping no longer prevails, what with patriotism itself in partial eclipse since the 1960s and the entirety of the American heritage subjected to criticism and carping. Mr. Berns wants to remind us that, whatever one makes of patriotism, Americans used to make a lot of it. Montesquieu likened patriotic feeling to a "sensation," independent of mere intellectual understanding. He emphasized, in the "Spirit of the Laws," the need for moral health in a people; to love ones country was healthy. Thomas Jefferson embraced the same principle, as did, still later, the public school system.
Remembrances and celebrations of Abraham Lincoln and of the "Gettysburg Address" (to Mr. Berns, the finest American speech ever made) might go down poorly in the post-Confederate South; nevertheless a point Mr. Berns might profitably have entertained the martial spirit of the post-Confederate South was crucial in the spread of American power during the 20th century.
Old-fashioned patriot that he is, Mr. Berns doesnt appreciate the indifference, sometimes the disrespect and hostility that often accompany attempts to teach and arouse love of country. Telling "the nation story," he declares, "should be an important part of the civics curriculum in our schools … a way of inculcating in children a reverence for the past and its heroes, with the view of causing them to love their country." Tell it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed, by one vote, flag-burning as a constitutionally protected mode of expression.
Mr. Berns is understandably severe with the court on this matter and commendably informative as to the difference between speech and expression. In a non-Lincolnesque time, he exhorts with an energy and eloquence his role model would find praiseworthy, not to mention inevitable. By Walter Berns reckoning, this thing America is bigger than all of us.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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