To the Sons of Noah: On the Words Patriot and Country in the “Dangerous Sense”

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 [1960]) 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.

  1. Generic country as a zone outside and unlike a city.
  2. A specific country as one particular region in this zone.
  3. 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.

26 thoughts on “To the Sons of Noah: On the Words Patriot and Country in the “Dangerous Sense”

  1. Pingback: To the Sons of Noah: On the Words Patriot and Country in the “Dangerous Sense” | @the_arv

  2. Great post! Word studies are an important intellectual exercise for anyone who has a love of learning, and is not crippled by education, as you say.

  3. Btw, Prof. Smith, your point is well taken regarding Webster’s definition of patriotism. My birth certificate declares that I was born in California. More specifically at Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego. When he was yet living, my father would occasionally refer to me affectionately as a “prune picker.” But he knew I was, and am, an Okie through and through.

    Okie born and Okie bred, and when I die I’ll be Okie dead.

    Well, strictly speaking I’m not “Okie born,” as was my father and his father before him. And of course it was in that technical sense that my father would jokingly refer to me as a “prune picker.” But I was most assuredly “Okie bred,” and when I die I’ll be “Okie dead.”

    Nothing against “prune pickers” per se, but I ain’t one of ’em, and that geographical territory we call California isn’t my country either. 🙂

    • One’s native country needn’t be the prices location of one’s nativity (birth tourism and anchor babies notwithstanding). It’s really the country in which you feel at home because it is congruent with one’s essential nature. The two often go together, but not always.

    • Another Okie here, although I’ve lived in Texas my whole adult life. One of my great-great-grandfathers wrote that he was “Missourian by birth, Texan by immigration, Oklahoman by hard luck.” But it will always be my “home”,

      • Although born in Wisconsin, I grew up in what was once known as the Genesee Country of western New York State. I’d like it if Americans would revive the tradition of referring to their “country” as their native region, and if they linked this to features less arbitrary than big rectangular states. I think Red River country or Cimarron country have a nice ring. Of course there’s nothing wrong with calling America your country, but I’d reserve that for foreigners. When talking among ourselves, we ought to express our local patriotism. But a geographer would say that, wouldn’t he!

      • Few, if any, of my online acquaintances would know what a “Mudcreeker” is if ever I used the term in online conversations such as this. But that is what I am before I’m an “Okie” when you boil it all down.

        Shifting gears a bit – I think Webster understood the difference (as a general rule) between country folk and city dwellers. He wrote that (paraphrase) ‘our safety is in the country people, who are more isolated and out of reach of demagogues’ (the exact quote escapes me, I’ll have to go look it up). Which even today holds true to an extent, despite the existence of the “worldwide web” and social media.

        As Jefferson also noted, when our people start piling themselves on top of each other in big cities as in Europe, everything will go to sh… hell in a handbasket. Or something like that.

      • Mr Morris, My mother had a “Mud Creek” tooled leather belt when I was a child. I think she may have gotten it as a teenager. My family were from the Ringling/Ardmore/Marietta area.

        Mr Smith, sadly, I think we gave up most of those quaint regionalisms before my time. It would be nice to reclaim it. My hometown was known as “the sunny side of the Arbuckles” 🙂

      • Believe it or not, I have an idea for a post that will mention the Arbuckle Mountains. Many geographers in the 1820s believed there was a more or less continuous range of mountains from the Ozarks to the Big Bend of the Rio Grande. Some parts of this range were wholly imaginary (e.g. the San Saba Mountains), whereas other (like the Arbuckle Mts.) were merely exaggerated.

  4. Pingback: To the Sons of Noah: On the Words Patriot and Country in the “Dangerous Sense” | Reaction Times

  5. Excellent article. I’m no scholar, but what I know of him, Webster felt strongly that unity in language was critical to the making of Americans. I wrote a little blog article about it once. Thus, calling out the nuance and what I think of as “deep grammar” (sorry, can’t recall who coined the term), of our words in his American Dictionary would seem to have been at least partly in effort to cement the bonds of patriotism among both rural and city dwellers.

    • Thanks! Yes, internal unity, or at least similarity. But also an unashamed dissimilarity to England. Webster wished to break Americans from the habit of regarding the English spoken in England as proper English. He only half succeeded!

  6. Thank you for an insightful post.

    I think also that the term “patriot”, because of its origin in the Latin pater, carries an important sense in which it binds together time and place. This sense of extension in time is falling away very rapidly in our new, multiculturalist America, in which nearly nothing remains of any sort of shared patrimony, or of the heritage that attaches thereto.

    This exacerbates exactly the ill effect that you describe: there is no place for this natural sentiment to attach in such an era, except to the State.

  7. One’s country is beginning to mean, in a new and I believe dangerous sense, the sovereign power by which one is ruled.

    But Lee’s struggle was between his competing loyalties to the sovereign United States and the sovereign state of Virginia. The conflict was not based on a distinction between one’s country and one’s sovereign, but a conflict between two sovereigns. Note this problems doesn’t exist for the contemporary man, as Lincoln crushed the sovereign power of the sub-national states in any meaningful sense once and for all. Civil War II is a fantasy at this historical moment.

    • Lee’s struggle was to decide whether Virginia or the Federation was his country, in the sense of the ultimate object of his loyalty. You and I may disagree over the identity of sovereignty and loyalty. I’m not promoting Civil War II, but there is absolutely nothing in this world that is “once and for all.” The Union that Lincoln preserved will survive until it doesn’t. I will not predict when that will be, but all of history assures us that that day will come.

    • But Lee’s struggle was between his competing loyalties to the sovereign United States and the sovereign state of Virginia.

      Men like Lee didn’t have “competing loyalties”; they had one loyalty, and that was to their homeland. As Matthew Fontaine Maury wrote (to Constantine, Grand Admiral of Russia) at the time:

      This call [to Virginia’s sons in the Federal Service to retire therefrom and come to her aid] found me in the midst of those quiet physical researches at the Observatory in Washington which I am now, with so much delicacy of thought and goodness of heart, invited to resume in Russia. Having been brought up in the school of States-rights, where we had for masters the greatest statesmen of America, and among them Mr. Madison, the wisest of them all, I could not, and did not hesitate; I recognized this call, considered it mandatory, and, formally renouncing all allegiance to the broken Union, hastened over to the South side of the Potomac, there to renew to Father-land those vows of fealty, service, and devotion which the State of Virginia had permitted me to pledge to the Federal Union so long only as, by serving it, I might serve her.

      • Boy: Maury was a master of English. Astonishingly beautiful prose.

        Kristor, yes, very telling you should form that conclusion from such a small sampling. Believe it or not, I brought the exact point out a couple of chapters back in the book.

        This is becoming a labor of love!

  8. Pingback: This Week In Reaction (2018/02/11) - Social Matter

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