What Does It Mean To Be a Patriot? A Brief History of the Word and How It Could Unite Us

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“Patriot” is a word that gets thrown around a lot. Probably too much, actually. If you check various major dictionaries, they all basically say some version of the same thing: “one who loves and supports his or her country.” But if you look at the history and evolution of the term, things aren’t so simple.

Descended from the Greek patrios, or “of one’s father,” when the word was first coined, it was free of value judgment. If the regime the “patriot” loved and supported aligned with the preferences of the speaker, the word “good” was always added to make sure everyone was clear on where they stood.

In England, they started dropping the modifier and patriot came to indicate a supporter of the monarchy. In other words, a “patriot” was purely a supporter of the existing government.

What does it mean to be a patriot? Coffee or Die

United Kingdom Independence Party supporters rally in Parliament Square on the day the United Kingdom was meant to leave the European Union. Photo by John Cameron via Unsplash.

But it didn’t take long for England’s upstart colonists in the Americas to confuse the convention. To them, a patriot was one who was on the side of the revolutionaries. Now being a patriot meant one was against the existing government. Still, the patriots were fighting for their new country and its new representative government, so the title remained consistent in a certain sense.

But this sense that patriotism was something separate from the government, and that patriotism might even mean resisting that government, remained. Thomas Jefferson famously captured this spirit in his letter to William Stephens Smith when he wrote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

That’s a problem, though. Once patriotism means fighting for “liberty,” versus for one’s government, it basically just means “fighting for what I support.” And conversely, it means that those who don’t agree cannot be patriots.

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A view of Mount Rushmore. Photo by Priscilla Gyamfi on Unsplash.

In that sense, “patriot” is generally considered a compliment. Over time, though, it’s often been appropriated by groups usually considered right-wing, from the fairly conventional “Tea Party Patriots” of the late 2000s to the sometimes violent “Patriot Movement” groups.

The contradictory meanings of the term have been prominently featured in the news lately. Former President Donald Trump frequently referred to his most avid supporters as “patriots” when he ran the government, and those supporters enthusiastically embraced that label. They saw themselves as “patriots” both when they supported the elected government prior to the election as well as when they opposed the government during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

That use of “patriot” only makes sense if one is comfortable with the idea that patriots can only be of one political stripe.

What does it mean to be a patriot? Coffee or Die

A supporter of President Donald Trump demonstrates in Washington on Jan. 6. Photo by Joseph Andrew Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.

Some people may be fine with that, but it flies in the face of both the history of the word and the history of the United States. To give a famous example, Pat Tillman was, if not liberal, certainly not conservative by any stretch, yet he still traded in his football uniform for an Army one and eventually paid the ultimate price for it.

Was Tillman not a patriot? If his atheist, anti-authoritarian, and anti-war beliefs mean that he can’t bear that title in today’s climate, then all is indeed lost. But if we can agree that patriotism can include someone like Tillman, then it means that the term can exist independent of politics. If it can exist apart from politics, and it has already been shown to exist apart from military service, perhaps the word “patriot” can circle back to its old meaning of simply loving and supporting one’s country.

Words affect what we think nearly as much as what we think affects our words. If the staunchest supporters of political movements left, right, and center can concede that there are patriots on all sides of the spectrum, the political polarization we’ve seen over the past several years might have some chance of subsiding.

What does it mean to be a patriot? Coffee or Die

A man drapes himself in the American flag. Photo by Zack Marshall on Unsplash.

It’s far too easy to ascribe malevolent motives to the actions of others.

We may have different visions of the ideal America, but the number of Americans who aren’t patriotic is so small as to be insignificant.

If we can concede that our political opponents love the country as we do, we don’t have to fight them to death. We can persuade, we can compromise, we can collaborate. And we certainly never have to storm the citadel of democracy, the US Capitol, in order to save it.

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine Corps aviator who has also served as a police helicopter pilot and currently works in the aerospace industry. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and lives in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
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