A long-standing term in Anglo-American political culture, patriotism signified legitimate political opposition to government corruption; patriots withheld loyalty to the current state and strove to restore it to an imagined, virtuous, and pure past. In the early eighteenth century, patriots were public men loyal to the state but critical of specific government policies. Patriots were thus critics and reformers rather than vocal defenders of government policy. By the late eighteenth century, patriotic rhetoric became the hallmark of political radicalism, leading the politically conservative Samuel Johnson to remark famously in 1775 that patriotism was the last refuge of a scoundrel. By the 1770s, the term patriot had become so linked to British radicals that political conservatives used it to defame their political opponents. It was not until the late nineteenth century that those in authority coopted the rhetoric, stripped its long association with political criticism and reform, and used it instead to press for popular approval of government actions.
Patriotism was considered a male virtue, although women did occasionally claim this trait for themselves. A patriot demonstrated love of his country by remaining vigilant, making sure that government bodies remained true to universal principles and respected the rights of the governed. Patriots exhibited virtue by upholding the common good at the expense of individual self-interest through either military or civic service. Assuming that power frequently led to corruption, patriots were expected to curb political injustices by raising critical voices against their own government. Patriots thus remained loyal to their country’s permanent ideals, not to specific party interests or government factions; their task was to ensure that particular administrations remained true to abstract moral standards and defended the rights of all Britons.
The oppositional meaning of the term emerged in British politics during the 1720s from three sources. Its first meaning was derived from both Greek political thought and Italian Renaissance humanism, popularized by Machiavelli in Italy and Bolingbroke in England. This tradition upheld the virtues of a balanced constitution and emphasized the patriot’s need to fight political corruption, defined as the undue influence of any one branch of the state over the others. The second tradition looked toward an imagined Saxon past, in which a perfect constitution had secured liberty to all. Patriots used this idealized history to urge men to reform the present state in its image. The third source held the greatest sway over American minds. English Protestants held deep convictions that England was an elect nation, like ancient Israel, chosen specially by God to be the birthplace of liberty. These three sources came together in the early-eighteenth-century British mind to make England the natural home of liberty and virtue, blessed with a balanced constitution that was in constant danger from power-hungry and corrupt men. When such men gained influence, the political opposition had a patriotic duty to rise up in defense of their collective liberties and guard against political slavery.
American Revolutionaries found in this oppositional language a powerful means of asserting their critiques of George III’s rule and legitimating their Revolution. In the mid-eighteenth century, the word gained popularity among radical Whigs, who emphasized the patriot’s duty to protect personal liberty from all forms of political tyranny. From the mid-1760s on, patriots specifically opposed George III, depicting him as a corrupt tyrant, whose administration threatened individual virtue and liberties. While simultaneously critiquing George III’s administration, Revolutionary patriots upheld what they claimed were the true ideals of the British constitution, a political system based on ideals of natural rights and individual sacrifice for a common good. Patriot ideology drew directly from a British radical tradition that included such thinkers as John Locke, John Milton, John Hampden, Algernon Sydney, John Wilkes, and Thomas Paine. In addition, the term patriot retained very strong moral and religious implications to American Revolutionaries. Revolutionary reformers like their British forebears used the term to signify their critique of the British government, reminding American colonists that they had a collective moral duty to God to vigorously guard their constitutional rights. By the American Revolution’s outbreak, American patriots were also expected to promote more democratic and egalitarian ideals. For example, in 1777, Virginia’s Reverend John Hurt defined patriot as encompassing the idea of a public blessing a power of doing good, exerted and extended to whole communities; and resembles that universal and benevolent providence which protects and supports the world. Americans’ patriotism was rooted in their belief that they possessed unalienable rights as both freeman and as Protestants, and that their patriotic loyalty was to God first and the British king second. Such an understanding gave their radical political ends moral legitimacy. Karen O’Brien See also: Boston Tea Party; Committees of Correspondence; Lexington and Concord, Battles of; Loyalists; Militias; Revolutionary War; Sons of Liberty. Bibliography Cunningham, Hugh. “The Language of Patriotism, 1750 1914,” History Workshop Journal 12 (1981): 8 33. Hurt, John. The Love of Our Country. A Sermon Preached before the Virginia Troops in New Jersey. Philadelphia: Styner and Cist, 1777. Karsten, Peter. Patriot Heroes in England and America. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1978. Samuel, Raphael. Patriotism: The Making and Unmaking of British National Identity. London: Routledge, 1989.