An excerpt from The Lost Promise of Patriotism: Debating American Identity, 1890-1920
by Jonathan M. Hansen
University of Chicago Press
Cosmopolitan Patriots and Cosmic Patriotism
On September 9, 1918, the Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs appeared in Cleveland Federal Court to answer charges that he had violated the Espionage Act in a speech at Canton, Ohio, the previous June. According to the district attorney, Debs had impugned the U.S. government, derided the federal courts, praised the Russian Bolsheviks, and mocked the idea of a war fought to make the world safe for democracy. Worse, from the district attorney's perspective, was Debs's "sneering attitude towards patriotism and his attempt to make patriotism as we commonly understand it, ridiculous and absurd by his biting sarcasm." Noting that Debs had discharged these remarks "in the open air" and in the presence of "women and young men," and taking into account his "forceful and earnest delivery," the district attorney concluded that Debs was a threat to "the morale of the people."
After three days of testimony the government rested its case, whereupon Debs's counsel, Seymour Stedman, prepared to call his first witness. At Debs's insistence, Stedman informed the court that the defendant would plead his own cause. There was no point refuting the prosecution's report, Debs declared; it was entirely accurate. At issue, rather, was whether his Socialist critique was really un-American, as the prosecutor charged, or the very embodiment of patriotism, as he himself had been arguing for twenty-five years. Resolved that it was not Eugene Debs but American institutions on trial in Cleveland federal court, Debs believed that no one was more qualified to rise to their defense than he.
Debs began his plea to the jury by accepting full responsibility for his acts and utterances, assuring his peers that he harbored no guilt in his conscience. He then responded to the government's charges one by one: he had impugned the U.S. government for thwarting the advance of industrial democracy; he had derided the federal courts for persecuting the defenders of beleaguered workers; he had praised the Russian Bolsheviks for overthrowing the tyranny of the czar; and he had mocked the idea of a war fought to make the world safe for democracy because the people themselves had never yet declared a war. Renouncing the district attorney's patriotism, Debs invoked another model. Patriotism, he argued, meant more than shedding blood and upholding law. As manifested in American history, patriotism meant defending sacred principles and resisting tyranny and oppression, often in defiance of the law. The court of King George III had branded America's Founding Fathers criminals and traitors, Debs reminded the jury. "Isn't it strange," he remarked, "that we Socialists stand almost alone today in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States."
This book poses the problem of U.S. civic identity at the turn of the twentieth century: how does a country founded on liberal principles and composed of diverse cultures secure the solidarity required to safeguard individuality and promote social justice? The problem of American civic identity has received considerable attention of late from scholars and cultural critics concerned about the current state of liberalism and democratic participation. Rampant individualism, economic disparity, and the impression of a government for sale on the open market induce political cynicism and a consequent retreat from public life that transforms citizens into spectators. Local political passivity coincides with the rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic nationalism around the world, lending this problem urgency. As the United States confronts vexing social and political challenges at home and abroad, more and more Americans may be heard to wonder, in the words of historian David A. Hollinger, "How Wide the Circle of the 'We'?"
Mine is the story of a group of American intellectuals who believed that the solution to the problem of American civic identity lay in rethinking the meaning of liberalism. Between 1890 and 1920, William James, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Eugene V. Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Randolph Bourne, Louis Brandeis, and Horace Kallen, among others, repudiated liberalism's association with acquisitive individualism and laissez-faire economics, delineating a model of liberal citizenship whose virtues and commitments amount to what I have labeled "cosmopolitan patriotism." While celebrating individual autonomy and cultural diversity, the cosmopolitan patriots exhorted Americans to embrace a social-democratic ethic that reflected the interconnected and mutually dependent nature of life in the modern world. From their perspectives, Americans could best secure the blessings of liberty and property by ensuring their universal distribution.
Read the Rest of the Excerpt and an Interview with the Author