by Eliot A. Cohen
If Americans were more familiar with the complex heroes of their past, they would be better equipped to recognize people of good character today.
It is telling that those who speak loudest about Making America Great Again tend to refer to themselves as nationalists rather than patriots. George Orwell took the measure of contemporary nationalism in a 1945 essay on the subject. Nationalism, he noted, is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects.” Patriotism, on the other hand, is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The United States could do with more patriots and fewer nationalists.
One of the ways to grow patriots is through engagement with the past. Self-described white nationalists do not need to know anything—in fact, it is easier if they do not. It is not surprising that the chief American nationalist these days has proudly noted that he has not read a book for half a century. To understand and truly appreciate one’s own requires knowledge; to cruise the world inflaming your supporters, looking for trade fights with allies and murmuring soft words for dictators, on the other hand, ignorance does the job quite nicely.
Unsurprisingly, the events of the last two years have evoked a resurgence of interest in civic education, and particularly historical education. This is a good thing. Amid all the dismal statistics about American kids being unable to describe what is in the Bill of Rights, from which country the US won its independence, and whether Benjamin Franklin was president, there is good news. Even the usually wary Thomas B. Fordham Institute cheered the revamping of the Advanced Placement US History program by the College Board in 2014. At a grass-roots level there are a lot of teachers, school boards, and anxious parents who realize that the kids need to learn about who Americans are, how to think critically, and how democracy works.
In large measure Americans do engage with the past: They troop to Civil War battlefields and compelling historical museums. They watch New York musicals about historical figures whom previously they only vaguely recalled from the ten dollar bill. With a bit more energy they pick up books by great popular historians like David McCullough and biographers like Ron Chernow, or by academic scholars with graceful pens and vivid imaginations like James McPherson and David Hackett Fischer.
There are plenty of places to go, things to see, and books to read. But what Americans need more of is the embrace of the American past that helped them through the turmoil of the 1960’s and the sour politics and economics of the 1970’s. What is missing is, for example, the kind of writing for young people that Bennett Cerf of Random House solicited for the Landmark series that he founded in 1948, and that ran for some twenty years. He recruited top notch writers, including novelists like Dorothy Canfield Fisher, C. S. Forester, and Robert Penn Warren, and war correspondents like William Shirer, Quentin Reynolds, and Richard Tregaskis to write about epic events and personalities. It was formative reading for a lot of teens then, what a recent article in the American Historical Association’s newsmagazine, Perspectives on History, called an “icon of American history.”Patriotic history enters through historical novels as well—old standbys like Drums Along the Mohawk, or Johnny Tremaine. Nor did those novels of the last century always follow a conventional or unproblematic story line. Perhaps the best historical novelist of the 1930’s, whose grip I have never shaken, was Kenneth Roberts, whose Arundel and Rabble in Arms celebrated Benedict Arnold (pre-treason), and whose Oliver Wiswell told a sympathetic tale of the American Loyalists.Patriotic history does not have to cover up the dark pages of the American past—the cruelties and suffering of slavery and Jim Crow, the violence and injustice of the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Wounded Knee, the corruption of Tammany Hall, the follies of the Red Scares or Charles Lindbergh’s creepy America Firstism. But patriotic histories have a way of reminding us of what there is to celebrate in the American past—as when David Hackett Fischer reminds us that George Washington broke with British military practice in abjuring the floggings that could turn into death sentences, or when James McPherson points out that, in fact, the Cause—be it preservation of the Union or hostility to slavery—really did matter to many Union soldiers.
Above all, patriotic history provides us heroes. The president, early in his tenure in office, blithered a bit about Frederick Douglass, clearly clueless about the identity let alone the greatness of a man who escaped slavery and then fought unremittingly against it. Patriotic biography gives us John Quincy Adams in every phase of his life, to include its end, when he took a lonely and principled vote on the Mexican War just before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives. It gives readers Davy Crockett on the frontier and Audie Murphy at Anzio, and it also gives them Harriet Tubman rescuing men and women from bondage, or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fighting a hopeless fight for his people. It gives them complicated figures like Andrew Carnegie—strikebreaker and extraordinary philanthropist committed to building libraries across the country to give young people the keys to better futures.All of us, but young people especially, need heroes, including the really complicated ones, and particularly these days, when character is in such short supply. Knowledge of what real heroes put up with makes it less likely that one will fall for the kind of nonsense purveyed by a stylish hysteric who wrote about the 2016 election as if a vote for Donald Trump were the equivalent of being one of the passengers—again, real heroes—who charged the hijackers of Flight 93 on September 11, 2001. To know what heroes look like is also to know what craven or spineless or obsequious or merely unserious persons are.
American history is littered with heroes, and some of the humblest are the most inspiring. In the cemetery of Crown Point, New York—a dozen miles from Fort Ticonderoga, a beautiful place to explore patriotic history if ever there was one—is the grave of Benjamin Warner, who died in 1846 at age ninety. The inscription on his tombstone is simple: “A Revolutionary Soldier and a friend of the slave.” In the museum at Fort Ticonderoga (where I serve as a member of the Board of Trustees), is a battered old knapsack that belonged to him. Like many of his generation, Warner rose and fought, came home, and rose and fought again, from the beginning of the Revolution to its very end. Next to the knapsack is a card with these words:
This Napsack I caryd
Through the war of the
Revolution to achieve the
I transmit it to my olest sone
To keep it an transmit it to his
Oldest sone and so on to the latest posterity
And whilst one shred of it shall remane
Never surrender your libertys to ye foren
Invador or an aspiring Demygog
Not very well spelled, perhaps, but shrewd even so. If Americans knew their Benjamin Warners better and were thereby inspired, they would find themselves better prepared to deal with the threats that the simple farmer, a patriot if ever there was one, understood all too well.
Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic and the director of the Strategic Studies Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.