When we talk about patriotism in America, we tend to mean one form: the version captured in shared celebrations like the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. But as Ben Railton argues, that celebratory patriotism is just one of four distinct forms: celebratory, the communal expression of an idealized America; mythic, the creation of national myths that exclude certain communities; active, acts of service and sacrifice for the nation; and critical, arguments for how the nation has fallen short of its ideals that seek to move us toward that more perfect union.
In Of Thee I Sing, Railton defines those four forms of American patriotism, using the four verses of “America the Beautiful” as examples of each type, and traces them across our histories. Doing so allows us to reframe seemingly familiar histories such as the Revolution, the Civil War, and the Greatest Generation, as well as texts such as the national anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance. And it helps us rediscover forgotten histories and figures, from Revolutionary War Loyalists and the World War I Espionage and Sedition Acts to active patriots like Civil War nurse Susie King Taylor and the suffragist Silent Sentinels to critical patriotic authors like William Apess and James Baldwin.
Tracing the contested history of American patriotism also helps us better understand many of our 21st century debates: from Donald Trump’s divisive deployment of celebratory and mythic forms of patriotism to the backlash to the critical patriotisms expressed by Colin Kaepernick and the 1619 Project. Only by engaging with the multiple forms of American patriotism, past and present, can we begin to move forward toward a more perfect union that we all can celebrate.
Ben Railton is Professor of English Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He is the author of five previous books, most recently We the People: The 500-Year Battle over Who is American (also in the American Ways series). His public scholarly efforts also include the daily AmericanStudies blog, the monthly Considering History column for the Saturday Evening Post, and contributions to many other online conversations including HuffPost and We’re History.
Ben Railton offers an insightful approach into how U.S. patriotism has been contradictorily defined since the founding of the country. He astutely argues that celebratory patriotism, where the U.S. is a perfect country, has evolved along with critical patriotism, where citizens work towards creating a more perfect union, and that both definitions have often been at odds with each other. Railton references a wide variety of popular cultural artifacts to demonstrate these competing definitions and brings his significant analysis into 2020. Anyone interested in how these contested definitions of U.S. patriotism began and have evolved would benefit from reading this book.
Of Thee I Sing is a remarkably timely book that forces Americans to reckon with the true history of US patriotism. Analyzing the concept from the colonial period through the Age of Trump, Railton reveals how both the right and the left have used patriotism in vastly different ways to achieve radically different ends. From maintaining white-elite patriarchal power to fighting for human and Civil Rights, Of Thee I Sing proves that patriotism has always been, and always will be, an incredibly powerful tool in American politics.