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The largest patriotism

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Carlos Barria/Reuters/FILE

(Read caption) People watch fireworks during Independence Day celebrations at the National Mall in Washington on July 4, 2016.

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One dictionary defines a patriot as “a person who vigorously supports their country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.” And by the measure of most of human history, that definition works well. A country, after all, is a thing that needs defending. Those who rally to the cause express patriotism in ways that often embody the best of human nature – sacrifice, honor, commitment, and selflessness, to name a few.

Yet on July 4, which marks Independence Day in the United States, it is worth noting how America has helped reshape the idea of what patriotism is. In our cover story this week correspondent Doug Struck and two other writers examine how Americans themselves are seeing patriotism in a time fraught with divisiveness. But the nation itself – through its founding vision – has something to add that also deserves reflection.

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“We hold these truths to be self-evident...,” states the Declaration of Independence. From the very first inklings of the republic, America was part of something bigger than itself. Across the ocean in Europe and in the American Colonies themselves, the thinkers of that time were fundamentally challenging how the world worked. Could government become better and more just by devolving more power to the people? Could economies link together in ways that improved the outcomes for all? Could science be better applied to health and well-being?

This period, known as the Enlightenment, was a hinge point in human history. Put perhaps a bit simply, it marked the moment when people began to more broadly accept that ideas and principles have practical power in everyday life. Before the Enlightenment, the rich and powerful ran the world pretty much according to their whims; during the Enlightenment, the Western world slowly began to put more faith in ideals than in mighty men.

To say this changed the world would be an understatement of galactic proportions. Wealth exploded. Freedom and human rights spread. Health skyrocketed. The Enlightenment, in other words, was the spark that brought to light the best of the modern world. And in their Declaration of Independence – and later in their Constitution – the Founders of the US were consciously framing the world’s first nation influenced by the Enlightenment.

On some level, we all know this. But here’s the real gift of those Founders to the world. In establishing a nation on principles over personality, on ideals over ideology, they set forth a new vision for the nation-state. Its metrics for success were not simply in maintaining territorial integrity or a full treasury. Instead, they were intimately bound to the unlimited scope of those ideals. America, as the Founders established it, asks us all to grow, to prove the truths that are self-evident. 

This demands progress. The proof of the truth that all men – and women – are created equal is by no means accomplished, for example. But in setting up a country that, by its very architecture, forces us to wrestle with such truth, the Founders offered a new view of patriotism – one that soars beyond borders, peoples, and times. It touches the very heart of human hopes, and it requires constant defending.