Ben RailtonJul 30, 2021
Of Thee I Sing
The Contested History of American Patriotism
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers 2020
Ben Railton's book Of Thee I Sing: The Contested History of American Patriotism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) is a cogently written history of the idea of American patriotism. Railton argues that there are four distinct forms of patriotism as practiced in the United States (U.S.) including (1) celebratory, or the communal expression of an idealized America, (2) mythic as based on national myths that exclude specific communities, (3) active, or acts of service and sacrifice for the nation, and (4) critical as expressed in arguments about how the nation has fallen short of its ideals in the interest of bringing the nation towards a more perfect union. He uses the four verses of “America the Beautiful” as a backdrop to illustrate the four versions of American patriotism while tracing the history of the idea from the American Revolution to the 1980s. Railton’s text includes an “Introduction,” eight concise chapters, and a “Conclusion” section.
In the “Introduction,” a robust argument is made for the existence of competing visions of American patriotism. Railton begins here with the story of Army Lt. Colonel and National Security official Alexander Vindman who provided damaging testimony against Donald Trump regarding a call Trump had with the president of the Ukraine. Vindman and his brother were subsequently criticized by Trump and his supporters and removed from their prestigious positions. This story is used as an example to demonstrate the competing forms of patriotism that are at times predicated on acts of service to the nation (such as with military service) or defined by a celebratory patriotism as the author notes, “What underlies such attacks on Vindman’s truth telling as unpatriotic is a definition of patriotism that equates it with a celebration of the nation.” Railton further argues that this “celebratory patriotism in embodied in shared communal rituals” such as with the singling of the national anthem, with hand on heart and hat in hand, reciting the pledge of allegiance, and closing speeches with phrases like “God bless the United States of America.” These are acts that “require from their participants an endorsement of the celebratory vison of the nation.” The remaining chapters outline the various forms of American patriotism over time.
In the first three chapters, the origins of celebratory patriotism in the era of the Revolutionary War, the rise of mythic patriotism in the early nineteenth century, and the emergence of active patriotism in the Civil War Era are discussed. Expressions of celebratory patriotism were produced by Revolutionary Era writers such as Tom Paine and Benjamin Franklin who communicated “foundational visions of an ideal America worth fighting for.” During the nineteenth century, mythic patriotism expanded out of events such as the War of 1812 and the creation of the national anthem. This was also a time of reform and “critical patriots” such as David Walker, William Apess, and Maria Sedgwick took the nation to task over issues such as slavery in an attempt to forge a “more inclusive vision of America.” The Civil War Era ensured the further development of critical patriotism as expressed by Frederick Douglass, Lucy Larcom, and Martin Delany.
The text continues with concluding chapters focused on the Gilded Age, Progressive Era and into the World War II generation. Active patriotism came to maturity in the late nineteenth century as advanced by workers, women’s rights activists, anti-lynching crusaders, and anti-imperialists while the Progressive Era was marked by “amplified forms” of celebratory patriotism. In the final two chapters, Railton discusses the 1960s generation, in part, defined by a new critical patriotism expressed in various social movements and the 1980s resurgence of celebratory patriotism. Railton’s text is timely and covers a broad scope of U.S. history.
Ben Railton is Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State, and the author of We the People: The 500 Year Battle of Who is American (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).
Hettie V. Williams Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history.