Instilling Patriotism-Then and Now

By Lefever, Ernest | VFW Magazine, June/July 2004 | Go to article overview

Instilling Patriotism-Then and Now


Lefever, Ernest, VFW Magazine


Recent challenges to the contents of the Pledge of Allegiance are cause for thought about the state of patriotism in America.

The other day I ran across an old book with an enduring message-a nation without patriots cannot long endure. The 400-page volume-Manual of Patriotism-with an American flag on the cover, was published in 1900 by the New York State Department of Schools.

At that time, New York, indeed all of America, was receiving tens of thousands of European immigrants. The major institution for teaching them English and American history was the public school system.

Many of the immigrants were inspired by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ..."

Patriotism in 1900

In 1900, our flag had only 45 stars: Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii had not yet entered the Union. Two years before, Adm. George Dewey had humbled the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay and Teddy Roosevelt had marched his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill on Cuba.

America was flexing its muscles as a new great power, and the vast majority of its citizens were unashamedly patriotic. This was especially true of public school teachers.

The Manual of Patriotism, addressed to those teachers, abounds with suggestions for fostering love of country. Public schools were expected to teach respect for America's founders, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the brave heroes who had died in their country's wars.

Solid patriotism, said the New York superintendent of schools, could best be fostered by teaching pupils to respect the flag and to learn about American history. The manual reflected the unabashed patriotism of the famous McGuffey Readers that were widely used from 1880 to 1910.

Specifically, the manual urged teachers to open the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and the singing of a patriotic song. Pupils should be taught to revere the flag, commit to memory patriotic quotations, and study the lives of great American patriots.

Young Americans also should observe patriotic events, including Lincoln's birthday (Feb. 12), Washington's birthday (Feb. 22), Flag Day on June 14, Independence Day on July 4 and memorial events for those who died in American wars.

Teachers were encouraged to take their pupils to historic places such as Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Gettysburg. (Teachers in those days would be shocked to learn that less than a century later, the national holidays given Washington and Lincoln by act of Congress would be merged into one Presidents' Day.)

Understandably, the manual, sensitive to "the separation of church and state," did not address religion directly. But among the patriotic songs it recommended, four mentioned God.

America refers to God as "the author of liberty"; The Battle Hymn of the Republic says, "Our God is marching on"; My. Country 'Tis Of Thee refers to "Great God, our King"; and the Star-Spangled Banner says, "In God is our trust!"

A century ago patriotism, morality and God seemed to coexist comfortably in our schools and in society generally. America is bigger than any sect, interest or faction. Our nation, as Lincoln said in his first inaugural speech on the eve of the Civil War, consists of "the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart..."

How Much Have Things Changed?

For the first half of the 20th century, patriotism and respect for the flag were held in high esteem by virtually all Americans. Of course, there were cynics and those drawn by alien ideologies who scoffed at visible expressions of patriotism.

For an elementary pupil in York, Pa., in the early 1930s, for example, the school day began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag and recitation of the Lord's Prayer. …

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