What Country Have I?
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land! Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d, As home his footsteps he hath turn’d, From wandering on a foreign strand! Walter Scott1 Before nodding in agreement with Sir Walter’s sentiment, we might want to […]
Breathes there the man, with soul so dead, Who never to himself hath said, This is my own, my native land! Whose heart hath ne’er within him burn’d, As home his footsteps he hath turn’d, From wandering on a foreign strand!Walter Scott1
Before nodding in agreement with Sir Walter’s sentiment, we might want to remember that a very great American declared, “I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism.”2 Not content with this bare statement of his alienation, Frederick Douglass forced his audience to answer, if they could, the bitter question, “What country have I? The institutions of this country do not know me, do not recognize me as a man.”3
After publishing his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in 1845, the nation’s most famous fugitive had to flee the land of his nativity to avoid capture. Returning in 1847, thanks to English friends who had purchased his freedom, Douglass made clear that what brought him back “from wandering on a foreign strand” was indeed a burning heart— burning not with love of country but with the desire to aid his enslaved kin.
Although professing himself stateless, Douglass insisted that he had the makings of a patriot; he had the requisite qualities of soul, both moral and intellectual. He even testified to a glimmering of the thing itself:
When I have been delighted with the little brook that passes by the cottage in which I was born,—with the woods and the fertile fields, I felt a sort of glow which I suspect resembles a little what they call patriotism.4
It wasn’t only the land that appealed to him; the “enterprise,” “industry,” and “many lovely institutions” also drew his admiration.5
However, those intimations were violently checked when he remembered the fate of his family, especially his sisters and grandmother: “America’s soil reddened by the stain from woman’s shrinking flesh.”6 In a letter to William Lloyd Garrison, written during his enforced exile, Douglass confessed to feeling remorse for these fleeting patriotic impulses. Any praise of America, whether for its natural or crafted constitution, felt like a betrayal of consanguinity and justice. Still, Douglass was not willing to give up on patriotism altogether; he told Garrison that he prayed for the nation’s repentance—a formulation that indicates a care not simply for the slaves but for the country to which they belong.7
For Douglass, it turned out that there was no escape from belongingness. When black leaders joined white politicians in asserting that a black exodus would be for the best—assuming that even after the demise of slavery, white Americans would never accept a new civic order of equality—Douglass’s response was unwavering: “We live here—have lived here—have a right to live here, and mean to live here.”8 Incensed at the presumptuousness and malignancy of the colonization project and worried by renewed fundraising to support expatriation, Douglass set forth the black claim to be acknowledged as American citizens. Arguing based on nativity (the arrival of Africans was contemporaneous with that of Europeans) and contribution (both laboring and soldiering), Douglass by 1849 was prepared to say, “We are lovers of this country.”9 Continuing to oppose those who tried to deny that the black population was an integral part of the whole community, Douglass experienced a further freshet of amor patriae:
We repeat, therefore, that we are here; and that this is our country; and the question for the philosophers and statesmen of the land ought to be, What principles should dictate the policy of the action towards us? We shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations. . . . All this we say for the benefit of those who hate the Negro more than they love their country.10 (Emphasis in original.)
In grappling with the paradoxes of his situation, Douglass was developing a critique of the status quo version of patriotism. As early as 1846, in answer to those who denounced him as a traitor for “running a muck in greedy-eared Britain against America,” Douglass announced that he was
one of those who think the best friend of a nation is he who most faithfully rebukes her for her sins—and he her worst enemy, who, under the specious and popular garb of patriotism, seeks to excuse, palliate, and defend them.11
This misuse of patriotism was on display during congressional debates over the compromise measures of 1850, which included passage of a new Fugitive Slave Act. Douglass believed that love of country had been “impiously appealed to, by all the powers of human selfishness, to cherish the viper [slavery] which is stinging our national life.”12 In response, Douglass was more and more ready to counter this last-refuge-of-a-scoundrel patriotism with his matured understanding of “genuine patriotism,” not least perhaps because he understood the rhetorical power of such appeals.13 “I, too,” he now declared, “would invoke the spirit of patriotism.”14
One obstacle remained, however, preventing his wholehearted embrace of national loyalty. As a disciple of Garrison, Douglass believed the abolition of slavery would only be possible if the Constitution were “shivered in a thousand fragments,” since the document was “radically and essentially slave-holding.”15 Even as Douglass was coming to terms with patriotism, he was in the midst of reconsidering this proslavery interpretation of the national compact, subscribed to by both radical abolitionists and the slavocrats inspired by John C. Calhoun.
After a deep dive into hermeneutics, Douglass became convinced that an antislavery reading of the Constitution was not only efficacious but also correct. In May 1851, with his usual forthrightness, Douglass announced his change of opinion. His newfound belief that the Constitution might “be wielded in behalf of emancipation” led to a profound intensification of his patriotism, as an attachment to the political order was superadded to the love of place.16 From 1851 forward, Douglass belonged to a creedal nation.
His most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July,” delivered just a year after his constitutional conversion, represents the culmination of his evolving patriotism. The speech takes the form of a triptych, with a searing criticism of slavery and its contemporary supporters occupying the central panel, flanked by a pair of appreciative sketches of the revolutionary generation. Celebrating the “saving principles” of the Declaration of Independence, the opening section credits that earlier generation with an expansive sense of the nation’s trajectory: “With them,” Douglass says, “justice, liberty, and humanity were ‘final’; not slavery and oppression.”17 (Emphasis in original.) The closing paragraphs of the address vindicate the Constitution as “a glorious liberty document.”18
This threefold structure illustrates how flagrantly the nation’s practice violates the fundamental charters. This was the essential point Douglass had learned from his legal studies: A constitution and government could be as distinct as compass and ship; “the one may point right and the other steer wrong.”19 For the next four decades, Douglass held to his aspirational and complexly balanced patriotism, meting out praise and blame in hopes of getting the ship of state to sail true.
Even though the existence of a creed virtually demands a self-critical spirit and a willingness to recalibrate the nation’s course to the ideational compass, not everyone agrees about the proper scope of patriotic dissent. I have had students who fully endorse Douglass’s assessment but still find it too bitter a draught to offer up on the Fourth of July. Presumably, however, those who invited Douglass to speak on that day in Rochester, New York, were prepared for the tongue-lashing they would receive. It wasn’t only slaves, ex-slaves, or descendants of slaves who could adopt or sympathize with the slaves’ perspective.
Having chosen to view the national holiday from the vantage—or disadvantage—point of the slave, Douglass expressed even his admiration for the nation’s founding from a certain distance, felt most poignantly in his repeated reference to “your fathers,” “your National Independence,” “your political freedom,” and “your great deliverance.” He insists that “this Fourth July is yours, not mine.”20 (Emphasis in original.)
Nonetheless, he just as repeatedly addresses his audience as “fellow-citizens” and refers to the enslaved population as “your countrymen.”21 The precedents in support of such language were strong. Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, had referred to free Virginians as “one half the citizens” and enslaved Virginians as the other half. The effect of allowing one half “to trample on the rights of the other” would be, Jefferson predicted, to destroy “the morals of the one part, and the amor patriae of the other.”22 Because the nation was uniquely founded on the natural right to liberty, slavery undermined American patriotism in a way that would not be true of a non-republican regime.
That most astute visitor to the United States, Alexis de Tocqueville, took note of this new type of republican patriotism. Calling it “reflective patriotism,” Tocqueville contrasted it with the “instinctive love of native country” that was characteristic of Old World peoples.23 Under monarchy, the heart was naturally and piously bound to place as a repository of the past. According to Tocqueville, the American form of public-spiritedness is at once more rational and more self-interested. Indeed, its root is in the self rather than the soil. Tocqueville explains that the American
understands the influence that the well-being of the country has on his own; he knows that the law permits him to contribute to producing this well-being, and he interests himself in the prosperity of his country at first as a thing that is useful to him, and afterwards as his own work.24
This more participatory patriotism—because it is aware of the linkage between individual rights and a constitutional order—enlarges or even aggrandizes the self, giving each person a stake in “all that is done” on the national stage.25
The existence of this new republican patriotism spurred Douglass to ask what country he could possibly have, given that he was unregarded, recognized only as “a chattel.”26 His question contains that individualist premise. This question would not have occurred to a Russian serf or French peasant. Just as Tocqueville’s insights into the reflective basis of American patriotism help us understand Douglass’s initial experience of deracination, they explain the opposite experience of immigrants, who often display a seemingly instantaneous attachment to America. Here is what Tocqueville says about that phenomenon:
How is it that in the United States, where the inhabitants arrived yesterday on the soil they occupy, where they have brought neither usages nor memories; where they meet for the first time without knowing each other; where, to say it in a word, the instinct of the native country can scarcely exist; how is it that each is interested in the affairs of his township, of his district, and of the state as a whole as in his own? It is that each, in his sphere, takes an active part in the government of society.27
When the creed functions as it ought—when “the principle of ‘Liberty to all,’” as Abraham Lincoln put it, “clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprize, and industry to all”—then nativity and long-shared history are not necessary to patriotism; subscription to the American creed is enough.28 (Emphasis in original.)
To be sure, the largely appreciative evaluation of America’s enlightened habits that one finds in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America has an underside. It turns out that “reflective patriotism” is also “irritable patriotism,” easily provoked and quick to take offense.29 That term, “reflective,” which initially seemed so flattering, does not mean that American patriotism is especially thoughtful, but rather that American patriotism reflects the American soul; it is a mirror of the democratic self. According to Tocqueville, criticizing anything in America, even the weather, is risky, since Americans take faultfinding personally. Their national pride mixes with “all the puerilities of individual vanity.”30 In turn, this hypersensitivity leads to self-censorship, as individuals accommodate themselves to the dominant public opinion.
Just a few chapters after discussing the unique character of public-spiritedness in the United States—and how it tends to suppress free speech—Tocqueville sharpens his analysis by describing “the tyranny” that the majority holds over thought and expression. Today, this phenomenon goes by the name “political correctness”—or the more recent term “cancel culture.” Although the content of what is considered politically correct has certainly shifted—from the celebration of all things American to their denigration—the phenomenon itself is still recognizably the same. Instead of being reflexively self-congratulatory, “woke” Americans are reflexively self-critical. We should remember that Douglass was never one to bow to opinions he thought defective. He braved the disapproving force of “irritable patriotism” at every turn. In reply to the question of opponents, “Have you not irritated . . . the American people rather than done them good?,” Douglass admitted the irritation but declared,
They deserve to be irritated. . . . The conscience of the American public needs this irritation. And I would blister it all over, from centre to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer and a better life than it is now manifesting to the world.31 (Emphasis in original.)
At the same time, he did not flinch from criticizing his radical associates, who saw nothing but slavery in the American political order. The Garrisonian abolitionists were the “1619-ers” of their day—the precursors of Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose 1619 Project argues that a straight line connects the arrival of the first slaves in North America in the early 17th century, the US Constitution of the late 18th century, the Dred Scott decision of the mid-19th century, and the “systemic racism of today.”
Douglass was unsparing in his dismissal of this corrosive line of argument: “How dare any man who pretends to be a friend to the Negro thus gratuitously concede away what the Negro has a right to claim under the Constitution?”32 Whereas Hannah-Jones asserts that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country,” Douglass held that liberty was endemic and prejudice aberrant.33 Whereas Hannah-Jones states that “for the most part, black Americans fought back alone,” Douglass highlighted the many Americans, of all colors, who worked tirelessly, often side by side, to bring America to its best self.34
Although Tocqueville doubted the thoughtfulness of American patriotism, Douglass shows that a richer conception of “reflective patriotism”—historically informed and able to balance appreciation and critique—is possible. Douglass’s journey from alienation to belonging is especially meaningful today, when so many Americans feel disconnected and doubt the very goodness of national attachment. Both cosmopolitanism and tribalism (of which identity politics is one form) seem to have more adherents than patriotism does. And while there is a resurgent populist nationalism, thoughtfulness has not been its trademark.
What we need is a patriotism grounded in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, deepened by awareness of our national failings and transgressions, and energized by shared striving. Douglass is a wonderful model, but there are others. Surely it is significant that the greatest American speeches are speeches of warning; think of George Washington’s Farewell Address and Abraham Lincoln’s Lyceum Address. Like Douglass, Washington and Lincoln stress fidelity to the Constitution and are engaged in shaping republican mores and reforming public sentiment. American novelists, playwrights, poets, and artists are another invaluable resource to illuminate and strengthen our patriotism. From Nathaniel Hawthorne forward, authors imbued with moral imagination have examined the American spirit with great psychological acuity. Complementing the classics of political history, these literary works provide an education in thoughtful patriotism.35
- From Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” https://www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk/poem/breathes-there-man.
- Frederick Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:236.
- Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions.”
- Frederick Douglass, “American Slavery,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:275–76.
- Douglass, “American Slavery,” 276.
- Douglass, “American Slavery.”
- Frederick Douglass, “To William Lloyd Garrison,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:126. This letter was written as he embarked for Scotland, the land of his freedom-fighter namesake, Sir James Douglas. The name “Douglass” was selected for the runaway slave, Frederick Bailey, by an agent of the Underground Railroad who had been reading Walter Scott’s “The Lady of the Lake.” Frederick Douglass, Autobiographies (New York: Library of America, 1994), 354.
- Frederick Douglass, “Colonization,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:352.
- Frederick Douglass, “The American Colonization Society,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:394.
- Frederick Douglass, “The Destiny of Colored Americans,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:417.
- Frederick Douglass, “To Horace Greeley,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 1:146–47. He reformulated the same thought in Douglass, “American Slavery.”
- Frederick Douglass, “Lecture on Slavery, No. 2,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, , ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 2:147–48.
- Samuel Johnson famously said that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” in describing those who cloaked their self-interest in pretended nobility.
- Douglass, “Lecture on Slavery, No. 2.”
- Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions”; and Douglass, “American Slavery,” 274.
- Frederick Douglass, “Change of Opinion Announced,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 2:155.
- Frederick Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 2:185–86.
- Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” 202.
- Frederick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is It Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?,” in The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, ed. Philip S. Foner (New York: International Publishers, 1950), 2:467.
- Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” 189.
- Douglass was expert in the use of direct address. This speech, like many others, displays a sophisticated pattern of vocatives. Douglass opens the first section with “Friends and Fellow Citizens,” followed by four instances of “fellow-citizens” and one of “citizens.” As he wraps up the first section, he uses a version of his opening, now rendered as “Friends and citizens.” The second section, full of anger, while it contains a further five instances of “fellow-citizens,” also has two much more sharp-tongued attacks, stripped of fellow feeling. Douglass lashes out at this audience, asking, “Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?” and then, describing a slave auction, again puts his audience on the spot: “Tell me, citizens, where, under the sun, you can witness a spectacle more fiendish and shocking?” See Douglass, “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro,” 189, 194. In the final section, as he turns to his vindication of the Constitution, Douglass returns to “Fellow-citizens!” now more emphatically, with an exclamation point. His final use of the phrase in the address is not in the vocative case. Instead, he speaks of “our fellow-citizens,” using the first-person plural possessive, which had been notably rare throughout the speech but appropriate, at speech’s end, to signal the possibility of combining the legal status of shared citizenship with an emotional connection between individuals of different races.
- Thomas Jefferson, “Query XVIII Manners,” in The Portable Thomas Jefferson, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Viking Penguin, 1975), 215.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, “On Public Spirit in the United States,” in Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 225–27.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 225.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 227.
- Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions.”
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 226.
- Abraham Lincoln, “Fragment: The Constitution and the Union,” in Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy P. Basler (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2001), 513.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 227.
- Tocqueville, Democracy in America.
- Douglass, “The Right to Criticize American Institutions,” 237.
- Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States,” 477.
- Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The 1619 Project: Introduction,” New York Times Magazine, August 18, 2019, 21.
- Hannah-Jones, “The 1619 Project,” 24.
- For a sampler, focusing particularly on short stories, see Amy A. Kass, Leon R. Kass, and Diana Schaub, eds., What so Proudly We Hail: The American Soul in Story, Speech, and Song (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute Books, 2011).