On March 21, 1861, Alexander Stevens, the newly sworn-in Vice President of The Confederate States of America, rose to a lectern in Savannah, Georgia, and addressed a crowd gathered to champion the recent secession of 7 states from the United States of America. Eventually known as the “Corner-stone speech” Stevens then clearly explains the principles that undergird the Confederacy: “All, under our system, stand upon the same broad principles of perfect equality. Honest labor and enterprise are left free and unrestricted in whatever pursuit they may be engaged.” He proudly asserts the Confederate Constitution is based on the “broad principle of perfect equality and justice;” indeed, Stevens’ oratory inspires, assured of its own moral high ground. Perfect equality is inspired, but the Confederacy was based on the principles of racial hierarchy, white supremacy and fear of those deemed unworthy. Calling violent oppression equality doesn’t make it good, just like calling nationalism patriotic doesn’t make it noble.
Stevens celebrates the Confederacy when he boasts, “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” Explaining that secession primarily aimed to protect and defend the practice of slavery, he acknowledges that most people, including the founders, believed “the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Nevertheless, he argues, “those ideas…were fundamentally wrong.” He then utters the lines that give his speech its name:
“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”
Stevens pledges his allegiance to the Confederacy, claiming he will faithfully defend and protect her. Waxing poetic about peace, rights and equality, he blames the North’s reluctance to grant independence as the cause for war. His noble claims are undermined by his determination that all men are not created equal, and that God created some beings with no rights at all. He sounds patriotic, but his Corner-stone speech reveals an important shift in his loyalty.
That a person could claim peace while pursuing war, claim unity while blaming others, or claim great power while stoking fear, is confusing until you realize Vice President Stevens was a nationalist, not a patriot.
This week our nation votes to elect governors, senators, representatives and council people. We have been arguing about how to display patriotism in the public sphere for years, but this election cycle reveals the slippage in the way we speak about what it means to be Americans. Are we patriots or nationalists? Is one noble, the other destructive? Does it matter what these words signify?
Stevens’ rhetoric prepares the way for his descendants in public service: Self-professed nationalists.
Many of us love our country, our service members who defend it, the laws that shape it, and the symbols that represent it. We love our mythologies: a nation built on the ideal of liberty worth sacrificing for, that every person has a fair shot to improve with hard work and perseverance. We adore the fact that we overcame great odds, winning our independence, surviving a Civil War, slowly claiming a continent for ourselves, and rescuing Europe not once but twice. We are proud of our track record, and nationalism invites us to reduce it to a story of ascension for one group of people. From a nationalist point of view, the story of America is the story of White Christians who beat the odds. Patriotism, on the other hand, demands that we face our entire history. Patriotism leaves room for righting the course, for correcting mistakes, for challenging a status quo that damages vulnerable people.
Nationalism denotes a shift in loyalty from our evolving country to a specific group of people, united by the perception of shared genes or culture, while patriotism assumes that we can work together since we share a space and, perhaps, ideals. Nationalism boasts superiority over any group of people perceived to be outsiders or “others.” It organizes itself against perceived threats, rather than simply for a nation. Nationalist groups include American white supremacists, Hitler’s Germany, Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy, because it thrives on fear, blame and the suppression of the humanity of those deemed unworthy. Nationalism guards the door, making sure outsiders cannot bring change, while patriotism upholds ideals, and challenges us to stay true to them.
For a nationalist, making American great again very much means making America white, defining it as white, assuming it to be white, protecting the rights and culture of whites.
A patriot, on the other hand, remains loyal to the idea of America, aligning herself to the concepts that were uttered in the Preamble to the Declaration. It is true that we have never embodied the ideals penned by Thomas Jefferson; then again, neither did he, so perhaps to be American is to strive for who we hope to be even as we wrestle with who we functionally are.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a patriot. His patriotism spurred him to force us to see the ways that we fall short of our stated ideals. He was so loyal to America that he challenged America to invite all Americans to the dinner table. King, always hopeful, did not primarily rail against our Constitution as a racist document, or even as an artifact exposing our worst hypocrisy. Instead, Dr. King called our Constitution a “promissory note,” and argued that it looms in our collective memory, reminding us that we can start to embody its best principals if only we would commit ourselves to caring about the interest of others as an act of patriotism.
Last week my passenger side mirror was pushed out of alignment. For days, I forgot, and every time I checked for traffic, I glimpsed only a skewed view of the road behind me. My inability to understand my car’s orientation on the road forced me to drive with a handicap. As long as my mirror was jacked up, I couldn’t drive with confidence. As long as our citizens ignore the damage nationalist thinking caused in the past, we can’t make confident decisions about who gets our loyalty in the present. When we mistake nationalism for patriotism, we cannot understand our orientation as Americans who share this land with many, varied, wonderful others. We live handicapped, ignorant of the very history that shapes this moment, oblivious not just to the record behind us but also to our history of thinking and ways of claiming ideals. As we vote, I pray we would take the time to know the difference—past, present and future—between a patriotism that corrects our course and a nationalism that empowers evil.