I get asked this question all the time, from interviewers, fans, and even people who have just heard about my music project PatriotMusic.com.
(For a very early video of me answering this question on a TV show, click here. It’s from 2005, so it’s also only 320 x 240)
My definition of a “patriot” doesn’t come straight from a dictionary, which only gives the denotation. I don’t ignore the connotation and I don’t ignore history. Frankly, most dictionaries get it about as wrong as possible. Consider these:
Patriot: one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests.
Patriot: someone who has strong feelings of love, respect, and duty toward their country
Collins English Dictionary:
Patriot: a person who vigorously supports his country and its way of life.
Patriot: a person who loves their country and, if necessary, will fight for it
Surprisingly, only one online dictionary that I have found gets close (and that’s in their second definition):
1. a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests with devotion.
2. a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights, against presumed interference by the federal government.
As both an American and as a defender of liberty myself, I think “patriot” has a different definition in the United States than it does in just about every other country in the world (unfortunately). The above definitions may work for people in most other countries who advocate or celebrate their nations, but it’s insufficient here. Why? Consider our unique history.
Before the Declaration of Independence in July of 1776, American colonists considered themselves subjects of Great Britain. But from the 1760s, the revolution against British laws and appointed British rulers in the Colonies had already begun. Americans were well acquainted with their rights as Englishmen and regularly referenced breaches of English laws including the Rights of Englishmen, the Magna Carta, etc. They were also familiar with the principles of Natural Rights and the writings of Enlightenment philosophers including John Locke. Taken as a whole, the beliefs behind the American Revolution are referred to as the American Enlightenment, and lead by the geniuses like George Mason, Patrick Henry, etc.
It’s a common myth that the population of the 13 American Colonies were led by a handful of Founding Fathers such as Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, John Adams, etc. In fact, this myth was created as propaganda by British aristocrats during the Revolution in an attempt to end it… by subjugating their subjects. They put out large rewards for the capture of these men thinking that executing them would end the Revolution. Aristocrats simply couldn’t see how thousands of people could independently rebel against aristocracy itself without having been manipulated into it by another elite group. They saw it as an attempted coup of one group of aristocrats over another. Common people simply don’t have it in them (they thought). Unfortunately, this myth continues today because it’s easier to talk about a handful of men that we know something about than the thousands of people we know nothing about except for their collective roles in historical events.
The beliefs that the United States was founded upon started long before there even was a United States and it didn’t come from a couple of individuals. It was a grassroots movement that spread like wildfire throughout the colonies and was fueled over and over again by British arrogance. But by the above definitions, our Founding Fathers couldn’t have been patriots because there was no United States of America yet. How could they love or support a country that didn’t exist?
When was the United States founded? July 4th, 1776, at the signing of the Declaration of Independence? Our first government was based on the Articles of Confederation. But that wasn’t until 1777. And it lasted until 1789, when our the U.S. Constitution was ratified. But imagine what our country would be like today without our Bill of Rights. And they didn’t go into effect until 1791.
So what was it that our Founders talked about, fought over, and died for? And what’s the difference today between a patriot and a flag-waver.
The answer is that patriots understand and passionately support the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They are students of both history and political philosophy and know that basic rights are self-evident and based on reason.
Does this mean that all patriots believe the same things? No. Even our Founders disagreed with each other often.
I’ll leave you with a couple of questions to consider:
Can a person be a patriot if they support the U.S. but know nothing of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, history, or political philosophy? If so, what would they be if the U.S. were to no longer represent these ideas?
Can a person be a patriot if they support the U.S. but completely disagree with the ideas in the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights? In other words, can a patriot support or advocate opposite beliefs such as socialism, communism, or true democracy?
©2015, Matt Fitzgibbons