There is an apparent wide and shocking misconception in our land. It is this. That patriotism consists in loving our government and in willingly and joyously doing what the president and his administration want us to do. It is this misconception, so cunningly advanced by unscrupulous men in power, which has paved the way for despotic advances in all the years of man.
Patriotism cannot be a love of government. Patriotism rises above the government as a mountain towers above a blade of grass. When we think of our country and a feeling of love and devotion wells up within us, it should spring from the reality of what our country is and means, and not from the government, which is the least of all our blessings.
In fact, the only virtue of our government, which was true in the days of its founding, was that it was a severely limited government of very little power. We could love it then, for it was harmless. A tiger in a cage can induce a feeling of love. A tiger, hiding in a tall grass of hidden taxes, and not so hidden force, is a shocking and a terrifying thing.
It is time we awoke to realize that the beast our forefathers caged has burst from its confinement. It is on the prowl in our midst. We do not know where it will strike next. But, until it is caged again, it cannot be an object of our love or devotion. It cannot stir us to patriotism.
But since patriotism is bigger than this beast, what is it?
Is it a love of the geography which makes up the physical confines of these United States? Yes, it is that. But it is more than that. It is the ocean’s strand, the endless plains burnished in waving wheat, the virgin snowy caps on slumbering and autumn forests, the rivers, the lakes of multi-blues, and much, much more.
Is it the people of this land who inspire us to love it? Yes, it is that. But it is more than that. It is the grandeur and the simplicity of the human soul which strives. It is the eagerness of youth, endowed with the desire and the power to prove. It is the transparent pride of lineage, and self-respect of accomplishment, the hope of better things. It is human strength and frailty in mosaic. It is good, it is bad, it is life and motion. It is a constant source of surprise and wonder. But it is much, much more.
Is it the genius of America which inspires us to love it? Yes, it is that. But it is much more than that. It is the scientist laboring in research. It is the capitalist risking fortune, reputation and a way of life on the chance he might win. It is the architect raising temples in his mind. It is the builder filling in the dreams. It is the skill, the brawn, the sweat, the tears of progress. It is this and much, much more.
For the secret of our love of country is in the spirit. It is the spirit of human liberty. It is not our land that moves us. It is that we are free in the land. It is not our people that move us. It is that the people are free. It is not our genius and accomplishment, but the fact that we are free to invent, discover and do which is the basis of our patriotic fervor.
Here is the lesson the men in power must learn. It is they, not us, who need a lesson in love of country. We do not need to be taught devotion to what is ours. They must stop equating themselves with America. The government is not America. The government is an instrumentality that serves America. It is best when it is smallest. Because as it shrinks in size and power, America, that which we love, grows bigger and more powerful, more beautiful, richer, more generous, more free.
It is time for the tiger to slink back into the cage.
This essay was originally published in the 1950s.