A couple of the commenters to my last post told me that they subscribe to Noah Webster’s definitions of patriot, patriotic and patriotism. Turning to Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), we find that these definitions are:
Patriot, n., a lover of his country, a benefactor.
Patriot, Patriotic, a., having patriotism, noble.
Patriotism, n., a love and zeal for one’s country.
Twenty-two years after publishing his Compendious Dictionary, Webster, then seventy years of age, released his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). It is to this erudite work that he owes his lexicographic fame. Because the American Dictionary is erudite, its definitions are far more detailed that those in the Compendious Dictionary, so I have taken some editorial liberties and abridged them.
Patriot, n. A person who loves his country, and zealously supports and defends its interests.
Patriotic, a., Full of patriotism, actuated by the love of one’s country . . .
Patriotism, n. Love of one’s country; the passion which aims to serve one’s country, either in defending it from invasion, or protecting its rights and maintaining its laws and institutions in vigor and purity . . . the characteristic of a good citizen . . .
Obviously, the meaning of the word patriot depends on the meaning of the word country, which appears no less than six times in these definitions. And this word country is, indeed, a word to ponder. If we look to Webster, we see that the word country can be used in more than one sense, and that one of these senses is what C. S. Lewis (Studies in Words ) called a “dangerous sense.” In speaking of a dangerous sense, Lewis did not mean an improper sense, but a sense that for some reason crowds out all other senses, and is consequently taken by readers as the only sense.
So, here is Webster’s definition of the word country in 1806
Country, n., a tract of land, region, native place.
Country, a., belonging to the country, rustic.
As he would explain in his erudite American Dictionary, “the correct orthography would be contry” because the Latin conterra meant the land (terra) that was adjacent to, or “with” (con), a city. The three senses of the word that are evident in Webster’s 1806 definitions grew out of this basic idea of rural districts surrounding a city.
- Generic country as a zone outside and unlike a city.
- A specific country as one particular region in this zone.
- One’s country as the particular region in which one was born. This was especially salient when most city dwellers were “country-born.”
Now, let’s see how Webster defines the word country in 1828
Country, n., . . . . The whole territory of a kingdom or state, as opposed to a city . . . . Any tract of land . . . any region . . . kingdom, state, or lesser district . . . . The kingdom, state or territory in which one is born; the land of nativity or the particular district indefinitely in which one is born. America is my country, or Connecticut is my country.
Country, a., Pertaining to the country or territory at a distance from a city; rural, rustic . . .
Clearly the word country is beginning to denote something that was not present in 1806. One’s country is beginning to mean, in a new and I believe dangerous sense, the sovereign power by which one is ruled. This dangerous sense had not yet crowded out all other meanings, as is evident in those important words “particular district indefinitely,” but we are on our way to the identification of one’s country with the state, and so to identifying patriotism with loyalty to the state.
When Webster wrote this definition in the early nineteenth century, American patriotism had yet to be fully consumed and monopolized by the central power in Washington. It included allegiance to the central power, but also allegiance to one’s state, one’s district, and one’s locality. This is abundantly evident when we read of the painful struggles of the Confederate officers who resigned their commissions in the Federal Army to serve what they decided was their primary country—
“either in defending it from invasion, or protecting its rights and maintaining its laws and institutions in vigor and purity.”
When war forced a man like Robert E. Lee to untangle his web of allegiances, he decided that Virginia was his primary country, and that Washington, D.C. had become a jealous and overweening city that looked down on his country with metropolitan distain.
If you have not been crippled by education, but instead enjoy the benefits of learning, you will understand that this is what the Civil War was all about. It was a war over the meaning of patriotism and the definition of one’s country. In that war, the central power said, “thou shall have no other country before me”; it said that “patriotism is mine.” Those who demurred, it put to the sword.
One can still speak of going for a drive in the country, and be understood to mean the rural district immediately adjacent to the town in which one lives. So, we have not altogether forgotten the meaning of the good old Latin conterra. And despite its being horribly disfigured by commercialization, we still understand that “country” music is somehow opposed to the metropolitan sound. But the moment we hear the phrase “my country,” our minds are too easily overwhelmed by the dangerous sense of that word, and this is because we have forgotten that country denotes a “particular district indefinitely.”
The district to which a patriot owes loyalty becomes definite and particular when one of the nested homelands in which he resides comes under attack. Thus the patriot will defend America when America is under attack, but the patriot will withdraw to local loyalties if America attacks his his humbler home.