Harper's Weekly Editorials by Carl Schurz/About Patriotism
BY CARL SCHURZ
The dictionaries define “patriotism” as “love of one's country,” and “patriot” as “one who loves and faithfully serves his country.” These definitions are generally accepted as correct, and they should be well kept in mind, especially at a time of warlike excitement when the word “patriotism” is on every lip, and an appeal to “patriotism,” from whomsoever it may come and by whatever motive it may be prompted, is sure to draw popular applause. It should be constantly remembered that to “serve one's country faithfully” means not only to profess love for it, or to have a sentimental attachment to it, but to consider with conscientious care what is best for its welfare and its honor, and then to do one's duty to it according to that understanding, honestly, with courageous devotion and in a spirit of self-sacrifice.
We are apt to admire as the highest exhibition of patriotism the voluntary sacrifice of one's life in battle for one's country. Inasmuch as life may ordinarily be assumed the possession we should be least inclined to part with, and as the deliberate sacrifice of it is justly thought to require a high degree of devotion and courage, the popular appreciation of the spirit which prompts such an offering is certainly well merited. But the peculiar luster in which this kind of patriotism appears, and which seizes upon the popular imagination, easily makes us depreciate another kind, which, although less brilliant, may be no less heroic, no less self-sacrificing and some times even far more useful to the common good. The glory surrounding warlike achievement and the homage lavished upon the martial hero are apt to make especially the young and ardent forget that while sometimes the interests of a country may be furthered and its honor protected by means of war, of all the means by which such objects can be accomplished, war is the most cruel, barbarous and abominable, and should be resorted to only in the last extremity, when there is no more hope of any other means succeeding. The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to “loving and faithfully serving his country,” at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.
As there is nothing more dangerous to the well-being of a monarchy than a prince incessantly thirsting for martial glory, so there is no delusion more dangerous to the peace, the prosperity, the honor and the liberties of a free people than the one that a needless or wanton clamoring for war on every occasion of foreign embroilment is a sign of patriotic spirit. True patriotism in time of peace demands that we should vigilantly and actively endeavor to obtain the enactment of wise laws; the appointment of able and honest public servants; the redress of wrongs and the reform of abuses; the expulsion from public place of drones and rogues; the restraint of lawlessness and violence; the preservation of security and good order; and, finally, the maintenance of an honorable name among the nations of the world by dealing with them on principles of fairness and magnanimity, preferring at all times, in the adjustment of difficulties, peaceable means to the savage arbitrament of war, and resorting to this only when we can conscientiously affirm that no peaceable expedient has been left untried, and when we are sure that our reasons for war can, without fear of an adverse judgment, be submitted to the opinion of civilized mankind.
True patriotism is incompatible with any selfish motive that does not accord with the public interest. The journalist or the public agitator generally who, while knowing that just demands might still be satisfied by peaceable negotiation, clamors for war and stirs up popular passion to increase his popularity or profit, is not only not a patriot, but a public enemy — just as much as if he openly and persistently urged the lawless element among us to robbery, murder and arson, to share in the spoil. We all respect our army and our navy — their character and their calling. They are to be the right arm of patriotism in times of conflict. Patriotism wishes them not only to be able to fight, but also to like fighting when fighting is necessary. But the same patriotism forbids them to clamor for a fight so long as fighting is not necessary. If officers of the army or the navy should ever use their influence to bring on a war while peace might honorably be maintained, to furnish them opportunity for showing how brave and skilful they are, and to increase their chances of promotion, they would be just as unpatriotic — aye, just as criminal — as the members of a fire department would be who try to set a tenement house ablaze for the purpose of exhibiting their skill in handling an engine or their courage in scaling ladders, and of thus earning praise and advancement. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a wantonness of spirit more reckless, more wicked, more repugnant to true patriotism, than the use of what ever influence one may possess to bring on war, with all its horrors and miseries, so long as the possibility of preserving an honorable peace has not utterly vanished.
If, in spite of all efforts to avert it, war does come, the duties of patriotism are the same for all, of whatever shade of opinion — for those who did not approve of the cause of the quarrel as much as for those who did. Patriotism then demands that we should all unite with the same faithful devotion in doing the best we can to make the shortest possible work of the struggle, and to secure a speedy issue honorable and advantageous to our country. It demands that we should carefully abstain from endangering the operations of our armies or navies by giving information to the enemy, and that, among other things, we should sternly curb that spirit of journalistic “enterprise” which, for instance, now is so busy advertising to the whole world the military and naval plans of our government. It demands that we should always be willing to deny ourselves any opportunity for private advantage that may injuriously interfere with the public policy.
It demands that, while vigorously pushing the war, we should neglect no chance for an honorable peace, and that in making such a peace we should never tarnish the good name of our country by an unnecessary humiliation of the defeated enemy. It demands that while the war is going on we should strive to the utmost of our power to mitigate its horrors, to alleviate its miseries, and, last but not least, to counteract those agencies of demoralization and corruption which, while the excited public mind is turned to one single object, are apt to grow and flourish in extraordinary measure. And here we touch a chapter the importance of which the patriot who has the working of free institutions at heart will certainly not fail to appreciate.
It is in time of war, when the rush of events frequently makes the needs of the government especially pressing, that the tribe of unscrupulous speculators bent upon cheating and robbing the public find most fruitful opportunities. They will always be seen and heard among the noisiest of “patriots,” in whose opinion no preparation is large enough, no action too quick and no measure too far-reaching. In the name of “patriotism” they will insist that all those safeguards in the government machinery which are to prevent fraud and theft be swept away as antiquated “red-tapeism” that obstructs the necessary vigor and promptness of action. In the name of “patriotism” they will seek to foist into places of trust and responsibility patriots of their own stripe to help them in their rascally game. In the name of “patriotism” they will strive to discredit and break down public men who have remained sufficiently cool to guard the public interest, as “not patriotic enough.” And this tribe of sharks and harpies will be lustily aided by the disreputable politicians who discover in the general disturbance a new chance for themselves, and who expect the loudest kind of war patriotism to lift them into popular favor and public place, trusting that everything will be forgiven to the “patriot” who is most vociferous in denouncing the enemy and most fiercely proclaiming that the war must not cease until the last fighting foe has bitten the dust. This is the class of “patriots” well fitted by old Dr. Samuel Johnson's robust saying, that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” And those who “love their country and mean to serve it faithfully” must not forget that true patriotism, while in time of war it has to fight the foreign enemy abroad, has to fight with equal vigilance and vigor false patriotism at home. For unless it do so with effect, the range and power of corrupt and degrading influences in our political life will be fearfully enlarged, and the progress of honest, safe and orderly methods of government may be set back for an indefinite period.
Can true patriotism possibly be eager to rush our country into war while there is a chance for honorable peace?
- Facsimile of Volume V of Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz.
- Facsimile of Harper's Weekly: