Illustration by Winston Smith

During the Vietnam era, Samuel Johnson was widely quoted by anti-war protesters as a rebuttal to the Nixonians whose car bumpers read “America — Love It or Leave It.” The demonstrators made a cliché out of Johnson’s tart remark that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

But they ignored the fact that Dr. Johnson considered all Americans scoundrels and that the targets of his contempt included the leaders of our rebellion. At the height of the Revolutionary War, he declared, “I am willing to love all mankind, except an American.” We were “rascals, robbers, pirates.” He wanted to “burn and destroy” us. If by some fluke the American rebels should win, Johnson predicted, “They will want a king.”

About that, he was not entirely wrong. During the triumphant weeks of victory and then throughout the faltering years of the Articles of Confederation, many Americans believed that what the new country most needed was a monarch.

And who better to take the throne than George Washington? John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other revolutionaries disagreed, not least because Washington was a general. Even as the United States was fighting for its survival, those men feared the destructive effect of a standing army on a democracy. Yet America’s outpouring of gratitude to Washington — combined with a widespread nostalgia for a familiar form of government — might have led to his coronation.

Except that Washington confounded Sam Johnson by being a patriot and no scoundrel. Washington knew the extent of his popularity and took care to protect it. Despite his healthy respect for money, Washington never cashed in on his service in war or peace. As president, he exerted his influence to keep the merchants of the North united with the planters of the South. But when their ambitions grew irreconcilable, Washington displeased Jefferson, a fellow Virginian, by supporting the economic policies of Alexander Hamilton, whose urban vision was better suited to the country that America was fated to become. To Washington, patriotism involved upholding the First Amendment guarantees of a free press and the separation of church and state. In his second term, he argued for postal laws that favored the nation’s newspapers even while attacks from an increasingly partisan press were wounding him deeply. As he was leaving office, a group of clergymen decided that Washington had not been publicly demonstrative enough about his religion and tried to force him into an avowal of faith. Washington had always made a politician’s gestures to conventional devotion, but he evaded the kind of testimonial the ministers wanted. Jefferson wrote admiringly in his journal, “The old fox was too cunning for them.” Washington was less formally educated than his associates — Adams from Harvard, Hamilton from Columbia, James Madison from Princeton. He was not embarrassed about asking other men to help in writing his speeches, and they in turn responded to the aspects of his character that lifted him above them. When it came time to leave public life, Washington drew on the talents of Hamilton, Madison and John Jay to write his farewell address. But the sentiments were his own.

Washington warned against “those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty.” Political factions should not divide men “who ought to be bond together by fraternal affection.”

Rigorous debate was “a fire not to be quenched.” But it demanded vigilance “lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”

America must treat all nations with good faith and justice, avoiding both lasting hostility and passionate attachments for any of them. He was offering “the counsels of an old and affectionate friend . . . to moderate the fury of party spirit, to warn against the mischief of foreign intrigue, to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism . . .”

Washington owned slaves. Lafayette, who loved him, tried to persuade him to experiment with freeing them. Washington praised Lafayette’s noble heart but found reasons not to follow his example. These days, some historians argue that he could have changed our history if he had acted on his more humane impulses.

Washington knew better. More likely, he would have outraged the Southerners and never have been elected president. He would have looked on from the sidelines as the new country tore itself apart.

I might be more censorious about his behavior if most of us didn’t bow as Washington did to the prevailing customs of our time, and with far less justification.

Along with Gore Vidal, we deplore the excesses of post–World War II America as we go on enjoying the fruits of empire. We boycott and demonstrate, write scathing articles, give money to ameliorating causes. But we pay the taxes that allow the country to careen down wrong paths.

These days, religious people sometimes ask, What would Jesus do? Asking that question about Washington is equally futile. But just as he often rose above his personal instincts to preserve the union, his life suggests that he would welcome a new definition of patriotism. He might share the vision that John Kennedy described in a speech at American University in 1963, when Kennedy called on his countrymen to cast off fear and misguided self-interest and engage with other nations and ideologies across the globe. Nikita Khrushchev called it the best speech made by an American president since Franklin Roosevelt.

To me, American patriotism has progressed in a wavering but heartening line from George Washington to Jimmy Carter. Sam Johnson might have mocked the prospect, but tomorrow’s patriotism will speak less of a blind love of our native land than of a clear-eyed concern for the natives of every land.

A.J. Langguth, a former New York Times correspondent, won the Overseas Press Club Award for Our Vietnam: The War 1954–1975. Author of Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, he is currently finishing a book on the War of 1812.

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