Frederick Douglass: An American Patriot

Frederick Douglass

Questions about Patriotism

Is a person patriotic, when he or she is an outspoken critic of the government? Is it wrong for a patriot to denounce the government for being wrong? Must he or she agree with the President of the United States and his administration? What is a patriot? Is it a person who gives absolute allegiance to his nation, saying, “My country, right or wrong?” That is a radical or extreme kind of patriotism, a form of nationalism.

The Wrong Kind of Patriotism

A blind, mindless, uncritical acceptance of and obedience to the laws and policies of a government is not patriotic. Rather, it is “patriolatry,” which is a form of idolatry. Citizens who surrender their minds to a government, giving absolute allegiance to it, have, in effect, put the government in the place of God. On that point, the Torah is clear: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3). Human government is not God. Hence, it may not take the place of God by demanding a loyalty, which belongs to God alone.

The Right Kind of Patriotism

Of course, patriots love their country. But they love it, while, at the same time, carefully watching and morally evaluating it: Praising it, when it is right; and criticizing it, even denouncing it, when it is wrong. Frederick Douglas, for example, did just that: praising and denouncing America in a speech on July 5th, 1852. Douglas, a former slave, a Republican and a patriot praised America, saying,

“Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory.

“They loved their country better than their own private interests; and, though this is not the highest form of human excellence, all will concede that it is a rare virtue, and that when it is exhibited, it ought to command respect. He who will, intelligently, lay down his life for his country, is a man whom it is not in human nature to despise. Your fathers staked their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, on the cause of their country. In their admiration of liberty, they lost sight of all other interests.”

Douglass then proceeds to give a scathing critique, a denunciation, of the American government for its institution of slavery. For example, he says,

“America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery — the great sin and shame of America! ‘I will not equivocate; I will not excuse;’ I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.”

Lessons for the 21st Century

Because government is a human institution, consisting of finite, fallible human beings, it can and will err. Of course, when a government is right, it should be kept right. But when it is wrong, it should be put right. That is precisely what Douglass did throughout his life. That is also the role of an American patriot: To “speak truth to power;” to criticize the government, calling attention to its shortcomings, bringing its injustices to consciousness in the American people, so that America may continue to evolve politically, socially and morally, becoming an even better nation.

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