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.
Introduction: Competing Visions of Patriotism
Chapter 1: The Revolution: Declaring and Constituting a Nation
Chapter 2: The Early Republic: Young, Expanding, and Divided
Chapter 3: The Civil War: Testing Whether the Nation Could Endure
Chapter 4: The Gilded Age: Wealth, Empire, and Resistance
Chapter 5: The Progressive Era: From Roosevelt and Reform to World War
Chapter 6: The Depression and World War II: Beyond the Greatest Generation
Chapter 7: The 1960s: Love It, Leave It, or Change It
Chapter 8: The 1980s: Morning and Mourning in America
Conclusion: Patriotism in the Age of Trump
A Note on Sources
[Railton] examines four different kinds of American patriotism in this accessible and progressive- minded history. . . . [A] particularly insightful study of the Progressive Era that juxtaposes Theodore Roosevelt’s embodiment of celebratory patriotism with the active and critical patriotism that motivated the period’s myriad reform movements, including women’s suffrage and anti-imperialism. . . . Liberals in particular will savor this fine-tuned dissection of competing visions of American patriotism.
Railton sheds light on current debates regarding patriotism in the public sphere and how they speak to our present and future as a democracy. . . . Railton defines four distinct forms of patriotism [and] In an enlightening parallel, he interprets the four verses of "America the Beautiful” as reflecting these four expressions of patriotism, deftly applying each as an analytical lens delivering new understandings of our history . . . As expressions of patriotism continue to reflect both our bitter differences and our shared ideals, the value of this perceptive work will continue to grow.
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.
Despite the absolutist terms often applied to it, patriotism is pretty arbitrary. The location of your birth, which after all nobody has any say in, doesn’t obligate anyone to automatically support whatever country, government, or national mythology might exist wherever they happen to be. Patriotism, in its best form, is a moral choice, and like any decision its integrity hinges on the critical thinking involved. In Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism, historian Ben Railton demonstrates just how arbitrary. Examining the varying forms that American patriotism can take, reminding us that patriotic words and deeds are more complex than they are often treated, Railton informatively argues that patriotism can be a challenge to the status quo. Applying your own experience, values, and ideals gradually reshapes your country’s narrative about itself, especially if you’re challenging its essential principles and myths, and questioning your own part in them.
7/27/21: "Of Thee I Sing" Author Ben Railton sat down with The Arts Fuse to talk about American history and what it means to be patriotic.
3/1/21, Saturday Evening Post: In this piece, Ben focuses on women’s history month, “Considering History: Women Whose Critical Patriotism Made America Better.” Link: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2021/03/considering-history-women-whose-critical-patriotism-made-america-better
3/5/21, Washington Post: Read Ben Railton’s Made by History piece related to the book:Link: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2021/03/05/real-message-behind-that-golden-trump-statue/
6/2/21, Saturday Evening Post: Railton's article reflects on the 51th anniversary of his parents' marriage to look at ideas of inclusion and critical patriotism (the theme of his book). Link: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2021/06/considering-history-what-ive-learned-from-my-parents-about-american-ideals
7/4/2021: The Daily Beast writer Matt Hanson reviewed Of Thee I Sing and interviewed author Ben Railton. Link: https://www.thedailybeast.com/patriotism-amounts-to-a-lot-more-than-love-it-or-leave-it?ref=scroll