The triumph of blue patriotism

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama addresses a record-setting crowd of 100,000 in Denver, Colo. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama addresses a record-setting crowd of 100,000 in Denver, Colo. (Photo/Jason Kosena)
When Barack Obama took the stage at the We Are One concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, he signaled not only the arrival of a new administration to Washington but the arrival of a patriotism that looks new but isn’t. This patriotism’s founding document is the Declaration of the Independence. Abraham Lincoln, not George Washington, is the father of the nation, and Martin Luther King, not Ronald Reagan, is its greatest recent leader. This patriotism is not red, not white, but blue.

“It is how this nation has overcome the greatest differences and the longest odds,” Obama declared to the huge crowd on the mall, “because there is no obstacle that can stand in the way of millions of voices calling for change.”

The televised spectacle hammered home the message with the constant brooding visage of Lincoln peering down on a multiracial cast of singers dressed in bipartisan red and blue who were clearly having a ball. The penultimate song in which Pete Seeger, the ebullient 89-year-old former communist, joined Bruce Springsteen bawling out “This Land Is Your Land,” a working man’s anthem written by another leftist, Woody Guthrie, showed just how capacious this new patriotism is.

But, of course, this blue patriotism is not new. It is found everywhere in Washington, hidden in plain view, forgotten by those who preferred not to learn its lessons. For example, when Obama begins the parade from the Capitol to the White House on Tuesday, he will pass the unobtrusive but swank Capitol Grille on the northwest corner of 6th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, where a bronze plaque outside its door notes that “The Star Spangled Banner” was first sung in public on this corner in 1814 and that a free black man named Beverly Snow once ran a restaurant there in the 1830s.

Obama’s passage through this intersection reveals the country’s racial history anew — its complexities and its glories. Beverly Snow, proprietor of the Epicurean Eating House, was a man who wouldn’t have been out of place in Obama’s Washington: He was a mixed-race entrepreneur who had a way with words, friends in high places and a fondness for good food. Back then he found success, but his very example generated fears. In the city’s first race riot in August 1835, Snow was hounded out of business by a white mob as city authorities — including Francis Scott Key, the national anthem author then serving as the city’s district attorney — stood aside.

Obama’s ascension to the presidency is the culmination of a struggle that began on the streets of Washington 175 years ago. The red-blue dynamics that have dominated American politics for the last 40 years were born here in the first real national debate over slavery. A few months after “the Snow-storm,” as the 1835 riot was known, a handful of brave congressmen from the Northeast and Midwest, blue states today, for the first time submitted petitions from their constituents demanding abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. Southern legislators, uniformly from states considered “red” (at least before 2008), responded by imposing the gag rule forbidding any debate about the issue.

At stake was the very meaning of American patriotism. For the red state representatives, to raise the question of whether the white man had the right to enslave Africans was to insult not only their rights but to subvert the essence of the United States of America. Red patriotism was, in the words of historian Gary Gerstle, a kind of “racial nationalism” in which the country’s glory was tied to white man’s prerogatives. For the blue states, patriotism was “civic nationalism,” based on fidelity to the Declaration of Independence, especially its defining phrase, “All men are created equal.” The two American patriotisms have dueled ever since.

Obama’s victory is a triumph of blue patriotism that has been a long time coming. Red patriotism, while it has long since repudiated overt racial appeals, continues to embody the view that America has achieved its greatness — and must be defended from those who would undermine it. Blue patriotism has all along insisted that America’s greatness depended on living up to its ideals — and has to be defended from those who do not take those ideals seriously.

From the start, red patriotism had the upper hand. Francis Scott Key, whose lyrics defined “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” prosecuted abolitionists who dared advocate their cause in the capital city. Key’s brother-in-law and close friend, Roger Taney, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, would go on to write the 1858 Dred Scott decision that legalized slavery everywhere and hastened the arrival of the war between the states.

Many abolitionists responded by reviling America as a wicked and irredeemable country. But other abolitionists embraced America despite the blot of slavery. The first great blue patriots were former president turned congressman John Quincy Adams, who single-handedly battled the gag rule in the face of insults and threats, and Frederick Douglass, a former slave and orator who denounced America’s hypocritical celebration of the Fourth of July but predicted that the Declaration of Independence and “the genius of American institutions” would eventually prevail over the slave masters.

Douglass was proven right by Abraham Lincoln, the greatest blue patriot. Unlike Obama, this Illinois politico did not come to office as a blue patriot. He rejected abolitionism as extremism and espoused white supremacy. But in the crucible of the War Between the States, he understood that America had no choice but destroy the slave system in the name of universal liberty. In the Gettysburg address and the Second Inaugural address Lincoln redefined what America would look like after that was achieved. It would be “a more perfect union” in which the spirit of the Declaration would be transformed into constitutional protections for the former slaves.

With Lincoln’s assassination and the advent of Jim Crow in the South, red patriotism (and white supremacy) remained the norm for another century. But every popular and politically effective social reform movement of the 19th and 20th centuries would promote their causes as carrying out the ideals of the Declaration and the preamble to the Constitution. Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s declaration of women’s rights at Seneca Falls, N.Y., in 1848, the labor movement of early 20th century and the civil rights movement of the 1950 and 60s all drew on this tradition. At the peak of their influence in the 1930s, even American communists (like Pete Seeger) liked to describe their ideology as “20th-century Americanism.”

Amid some stagy theatrics, the We Are One concert showcased this history. The giant TV screen along the Reflecting Pool flashed back to grainy newsreel footage from 1939 when the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to let Marian Anderson sing at Constitution Hall because she was black. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt arranged for her to sing at the Lincoln Memorial where the 16th president’s two greatest speeches are inscribed. (Anderson sang “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” not “The Star Spangled Banner.”)

So, in 1963, it was natural for Martin Luther King to choose to give his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Memorial. It was equally natural that a country only just beginning to renounce Jim Crow laws preferred to ignore King’s speech. Life magazine, then one of the country’s most popular magazines, ran exactly one line of text about King’s speech and made no mention of his dream.

Not always noticed, not always successful, this tradition of blue patriotism was nonetheless a source of political strength for liberal causes. “For American leftists, patriotism was indispensable,” historian Michael Kazin has written. “It made their dissent and rebellion intelligible to their fellow citizens and located them with the national narrative, fighting to shape a common future.”

The exceptions were the anti-war and Black Power movements of the 1960s, whose leaders, like the radical abolitionists before them, rejected the very idea of American patriotism, attacking the country’s leaders, institution and history with insults and guns. Red patriots began to link progressive causes to riots, bombs and burning flags. Ronald Reagan parlayed this theme into the governorship of California in 1966 by depicting liberals as soft on the rioters in Los Angeles. In time, Reagan perfected red patriotism by shearing off its overt racial appeals. His sunny optimism enjoyed a consistent popularity — at least among white Americans.

But the covert racial appeals of red patriotism never went away. Red patriotism, founded in the struggle against the abolitionists, never entirely abandoned the notion that social change was the harbinger of black violence and violation of white women. A common theme in the partisan press of the 1830s, this dire theme recurred a century and a half later in George H.W. Bush’s successful TV ads in 1988 linking his liberal Democrat opponent to a black rapist.

The last gasp of red patriots’ effort to impugn the blue patriotism was an attempt to trash Obama’s patriotism by linking him to former Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers. It didn’t work because the country has grown multiracial since 1988. (Salon’s Joan Walsh points out that if the country had the same ethnic makeup in 2008 that it had in 1988 Obama would have lost to McCain.) But it also failed because Obama had made his name by offering a more inclusive and hopeful patriotism.

In his 2004 Democratic convention speech, the young senator from Illinois declared, “Tonight, we gather to affirm the greatness of our nation — not because of the height of our skyscrapers, or the power of our military, or the size of our economy” — an implicit rebuke to the complacency of red patriotism.

“Our pride,” he went on, “is based on a very simple premise, summed up in a declaration made over two hundred years ago: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

But Obama advanced blue patriotism by imbuing the traditional invocation of the Declaration of Independence with new-found confidence. He noted that the red-blue vocabulary of contemporary politics injected a dualism into American patriotism that is not only unnecessary but also unrealistic. To those who invoked the superiority of red patriotism, he said, “I’ve got news for you.”

“We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States,” he said. “We coach Little League in the Blue States and yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.”

Blue patriotism is just as good, just as pervasive, as red, Obama said, and the election results last November vindicated his vision.

Obama’s inauguration, of course, does not mean that America has overcome its social and racial divides. But it does mean that the popular definition of American patriotism is undergoing a decisive change. The concert on the mall was its first, but not last, display. Even President Bush, in a gracious passage of his farewell address, acknowledged that Obama’s victory shows “the vitality of American democracy.” It was a tacit recognition that the long ascendancy of red patriotism that began on the streets of Washington 175 years ago is over, at least for now. American patriotism is blue.

I told the remarkable story of Beverly Snow and Washington’s first race riot in the Washington Post magazine in February 2004.

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