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Monday, April 18, 2005

Scoundrel's Day

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year…
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Well, I remember it perfectly well. Today is Patriot’s Day, a holiday almost unique to Massachusetts. The only other state to celebrate it is Maine, which was once part of your Commonwealth, and it is a meet and proper time to reflect upon what is patriotism, what passes for it, and what is valuable about it.

“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

My friend Samuel Johnson is famous for his remark, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” That toady, Boswell, what you would now call a groupie, reported that Johnson made this famous pronouncement about patriotism on the evening of April 7, 1775. In his smirking, gossipy way, young James is careful not to provide any context for how the remark arose, so we would wonder who was on Johnson's mind. Unctuously, Boswell assures us that Johnson was not indicting patriotism in general, only false patriotism. The man would write anything to sell a few extra books.

I knew the Great Lexicographer, and I know who he was referring to – Edmund Burke, the politician that made his Tory gut rumble. The Doctor wrote and thought quite a bit about the subject of Patriotism, though he had no sympathy for your American Experiment – “That man, therefore, is no patriot, who justifies the ridiculous claims of American usurpation; … He that accepts protection, stipulates obedience. We have always protected the Americans; we may, therefore, subject them to government”.


According to Johnson (this is edited down some - gad, how that man could get going when he had a few coffees in him!) - "A patriot is necessarily and invariably a lover of the people. But even this mark may sometimes deceive us. The ‘people’ is a very heterogeneous and confused mass of the wealthy and the poor, the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad. Before we confer on a man the title of patriot, we must examine to what part of the people he directs his notice....If the candidate of patriotism consorts chiefly with the wise, the temperate, the regular, and the virtuous, his love of the people may be rational and honest. But if his first or principal application be to the indigent, who are always inflammable; to the weak, who are naturally suspicious; to the ignorant, who are easily misled; and to the profligate, who have no hope but from mischief and confusion; let his love of ‘the people’ be no longer boasted." No two-faced hypocrites among your government leaders, if you please. Free and frank to all stations, as good as any and better than some, is the watchword.

Dr. Johnson again - "A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest." We have all known such, and all have our own opinion as to who this might be; but no person would quarrel with the definition.


Too many people remember the facile quip about scoundrels, and too few have read Longfellow’s poem. Like many legends, it suffers from being historically inaccurate, but the sentiment behind it was common a century ago and almost unknown today. Your American Revolution has suffered in popularity to some degree from a lack of sympathetic women, blacks, and other fashionable types in its cast of characters. I was there, and I can tell you that they were indeed rich white men.

But these rich white men created a place of hope and a dream of freedom and justice with their patriotism that has remained far longer than any of them dared to dream. “A republic, if you can keep it”, said Dr. Franklin when asked what kind of government was created. We do not seek to emulate their genuine patriotic fervor, or teach it to our children, and today is a day set aside to do so. We need those dreams; as Longfellow reminds us:

A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere


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