Politics and Expressions of Patriotism

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The American Revolution bequeathed to the United States a legacy of liberty forged by bloodshed, and to reaffirm their patriotism Americans touted their identity as a freedom-loving people, enshrined the founding fathers, and commemorated Independence Day. John Adams's oft-quoted remark that Independence Day should be an annual holiday of "pomp and parade" distinguished by "solemn acts of devotion" underscored how some Americans thought the Revolution should be remembered (Butterfield, ed., p. 30). It does not, however, reveal the contested nature of this legacy. Americans might proclaim themselves patriots, yet they often disagreed on the definition of patriotism and about who warranted admission into the pantheon of Revolutionary icons.

conflicting patriots

Evidence of this can be seen as early as the 1790s. With the development of the Federalist and Democratic-Republican parties, the Revolution's legacy became the subject of contentious debate. For the Federalists, the Revolution symbolized the restoration of constitutional rights previously denied Americans within the British Empire. It had not, strictly speaking, been a revolution. With the French Revolution spiraling out of control, drenched in blood and violence, Federalists preferred to champion an orderly image of the American Revolution. For the Democratic-Republicans, the Spirit of '76 meant something more than simple independence; it meant the continuing spread of liberty, and freedom from foreign and domestic foes—the last a not-so-subtle dig at Federalist policies. Increasingly, Democratic-Republicans challenged the Federalist message by appealing to ordinary people to protect their revolutionary heritage.

Both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans crafted symbols to inspire a sense of national unity and patriotism. Federalists saluted George Washington (and by extension his policies, since Washington was a Federalist) as the model of a Revolutionary icon. He became the father figure of the American Revolution. Democratic-Republicans did not dispute Washington's prominence, but they added other Revolutionary symbols, notably Thomas Jefferson; they hailed the Declaration of Independence and emphasized the importance of the common people.

Federalists and Democratic-Republicans clashed over their choice of Revolutionary symbols as well as their choice of heroes. The Jersey prison ship victims were one such source of contention. Incarcerated aboard British prison hulks in New York harbor during the Revolution, thousands of these patriots had died and received impromptu burials along Brooklyn's Wallabout Bay. While Federalists were applauding the construction of a George Washington statue in Manhattan, Democratic-Republicans bemoaned the lack of attention given the Jersey dead. The Tammany Society, a Democratic-Republican political club, pushed for a lavish reinterment of the bones; it organized a procession of artisans, officials, and veterans and ceremoniously reburied the remains in a display of patriotic splendor in 1808. Federalists denounced the efforts as a political ploy to capture votes. One Federalist paper even questioned the identity of the remains.

patriots: icons or commoners?

The disappearance of the Federalists after the War of 1812 ushered in a more inclusive patriotic ethos. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, political rivals in the 1790s, came to be seen as equally worthy patriots by the 1820s, their political squabbles irrelevant to a new generation of Americans. Once criticized as hirelings, Continental soldiers now gained both recognition and pensions. A few veterans became celebrities. In the 1830s, George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker and one of the last survivors of the Boston Tea Party, won long-delayed recognition. Heroes could now be men of modest rank. Washington, Adams, and Jefferson were no longer the sole symbols of Revolutionary patriotism.

The issue of inclusion nonetheless foundered over questions of class, ethnicity, and race. Was it patriotic to include the contributions of commoners? The verdict remained mixed. Homage paid to commoners sometimes conflicted with the reverence rendered to the well-to-do. Uncertainties about John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart, and David Williams, the captors of the British major John André, Benedict Arnold's go-between, focused on their professed patriotism. Were they mercenaries or virtuous yeomen? Although Paulding and his comrades eventually won a measure of recognition in the 1820s, some Americans still lionized André. Cyrus Field, a prominent Gilded Age businessman, erected a monument to him in Tappan, New York, in 1879. Critics denounced the venture, and vandals toppled the monument in the 1880s.

André's fame also catapulted Nathan Hale into the public sphere, making Hale's enshrinement as a heroic American spy essential. As a consequence, Hale rated both monuments and statues before the end of the nineteenth century.

defining american patriotism and identity

For some, patriotism hinged on the politics of identity. Immigrant groups sought Revolutionary heroes of their own, and Pulaski Day and Von Steuben Day parades satisfied Polish and German yearnings. A 1911 monument to John Barry, a Revolutionary naval captain, did the same for Philadelphia's Irish Catholics. Groups unable to locate a Revolutionary forbear could still display their patriotism (and their ethnicity—and gain political clout if they turned out in large numbers) by marching in Independence Day parades, and all Americans could salute the Liberty Bell, one of the defining symbols of Revolutionary patriotism, as it wended its way across the country on tours between 1885 and 1915.

African Americans faced more daunting obstacles. Black patriots had served bravely in the Revolution, but few Americans recognized their contributions. Nevertheless, Bostonians acknowledged the Boston Massacre's significance in 1888 with a monument to its five victims. What makes this noteworthy—aside from protests against the monument by the blue-blood Massachusetts Historical Society, which claimed the event did not merit enshrinement—is that one of the five, Crispus Attucks, was African American. The stone became popularly known as the Crispus Attucks monument and signified recognition of a sort, however belatedly, for black Americans.

The political expression of patriotism has served as a sounding board for debates among politicians and citizens alike. It also spurred people to identify appropriate individuals as icons of liberty. If Americans living in the age of counterterrorism believe that liberty defines America's patriotic heritage and celebrate it with speeches, parades, and barbecues, it remains an open question how they will honor this principle in practice. Will concerns about the nation's security trump its commitment to freedom? The answer remains uncertain.


Bodnar, John. Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Butterfield, L. H., ed. Adams Family Correspondence. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963–1993.

Cray, Robert E., Jr. "The John André Memorial: The Politics of Memory in Gilded Age New York." New York History 77 (1996): 5–32.

Cray, Robert E., Jr. "Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776–1808." William and Mary Quarterly 55 (1999): 565–590.

Cray, Robert E., Jr. "The Revolutionary Spy as Hero: Nathan Hale in the Public Memory, 1776–1846." Connecticut History 38 (1999): 85–104.

Mires, Charlene. Independence Hall in American Memory. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Travers, Len. Celebrating the Fourth: Independence Day and the Rites of Nationalism in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1997.

Young, Alfred F. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party. Boston: Beacon, 1999.

Robert E. Cray, Jr.

See also:Fourth of July; Lafayette's Tour; Memory and Early Histories of the Revolution.

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Politics and Expressions of Patriotism