Henry David Thoreau on the True Definition of Patriotism

Updated on September 7, 2018

Henry David Thoreau June 1856

Portrait taken by Benjamin D. Maxham
Portrait taken by Benjamin D. Maxham | Source

Henry David Thoreau on Patriotism

What is the true meaning of patriotism? Many Americans have been debating about this topic since the Revolutionary War. In today’s political climate, this question is often disputed with heated discourse. Some believe that fighting for your country’s freedom makes you a true patriot. Others feel that being a proud American is the definition of patriotism. Which one of them is right? Is either one of these opinions right? Could this concept be something more than all those ideas put together? Well lucky for all of us, one American author dared to answer all these questions many years ago, as he passionately discussed his belief of the definition of an active American patriot. This author was Henry David Thoreau. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau teaches Americans what the "virtue of patriotism" really means (Thoreau). It wasn’t about who fought the hardest and the longest, or who carried the biggest American flag; Thoreau knew that patriotism, real patriotism, meant so much more.

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Patriotism and True Sacrifice

For Henry David Thoreau, it was very important to both educate and empower the American public on the topic of patriotism. Thoreau lived during a time where both Presidents and other politicians regularly did things that were less than ethical. It was imperative, in his opinion, to let all of the public know that they had inalienable rights that allowed them to speak up when they did not agree with the actions of politicians. Thoreau even went a step further to let Americans know that just because they didn’t agree with a politician or a winning party, this did not mean they were forced to remain silent. He felt they had a civic duty to speak up against politicians. To be specific, in his essay, Thoreau very eloquently stated: “The slight reproach to which the virtue of patriotism is commonly liable, the noble are most likely to incur. Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform” (Thoreau). What Thoreau is saying in this excerpt is that Americans who object to their government but chose to stay silent are worse offenders than the very government that stands in the way of civil reform. Thoreau even points out in the beginning that true patriotism is often unwelcomed because it requires true sacrifice.

Unknown Soldier with American Flag

I chose this picture because it reminds us all that soldiers don't join the military for shiny medals or praise...they do so because they believe in patriotism.
I chose this picture because it reminds us all that soldiers don't join the military for shiny medals or praise...they do so because they believe in patriotism. | Source

The few...

However, this isn’t the only comment Thoreau made about patriotism. He had very strong opinions about the way the government and the public treated true “heroes [and] patriots” Thoreau. Thoreau stated: “A very few-as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men-serve the state with their conscience also, and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it” (Thoreau). A lot of irony can be found in this statement. When a soldier gives up his/her life and freedom for America, there is often no “thank you” issued. And if some individual fights for civil rights (or rights that are already inalienable to them under the Constitution), they are considered an enemy of the state. In Thoreau’s opinion, these were the true patriots of America. They fight for people’s rights when no one else does, and, most importantly, they do so despite adversity.

What is true virtue in the eyes of a patriot?

But, to fully discuss Thoreau’s view on this topic, one needs to talk about the most significant statement of all: his definition of patriotism. Towards the beginning of “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau posses this question: “What is the price-current of an honest man and patriot today?” (Thoreau). He very interestingly goes on and answers his own question: “They hesitate, and they regret, and sometimes they petition; but they do nothing in earnest and with effect. They will wait, well disposed for other to remedy the evil, that they may no longer have it to regret. At most they give up only a cheap vote, and a feeble countenance and Godspeed, to the right, as it goes by them. There are nine hundred and ninety-nine patrons of virtue to one virtuous man. But it is easier to deal with the real possessor of a thing than with the temporary guardian of it” (Thoreau). At a quick glance, a reader might think that Thoreau did not define patriotism at all, but this reader would be greatly mistaken. In this passage, he was using sarcasm to make a point: a patriot has no price tag on them. It isn’t about who they vote for, or who they follow, or even making the right political choice. A true patriot is a person that serves only moral and ethical guidelines, without regard for the consideration of what it may cost them. Thoreau wanted his readers to understand that patriotism is not this shiny medal that can be carried around as you follow the flock of sheep into a den of wolves. Instead, he was proving to everyone just the opposite: patriotism is thankless, it’s unwelcoming, and it’s hurtful…but it is all that makes up a man’s and woman’s virtue.

Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
Civil Disobedience and Other Essays
Whether or not you agree with my point of view about Thoreau and his opinions, I highly recommend reading this classic American essay! I have read it over a dozen times and have several different copies. It is a must read for any avid reader and political enthusiast!

What true patriots really fear...

In conclusion, it’s indisputable that Henry David Thoreau felt very strongly about patriotism. In his essay "Civil Disobedience," Thoreau teaches all Americans what the "virtue of patriotism" really means (Thoreau). He proves to his readers that this concept is about self-sacrifice. It’s not about who you vote for or what political party you belong to. He proves this to us by clearly stating that a true patriot isn’t a part of the majority: “There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men” (Thoreau). He tells his readers that patriots are individuals such as “martyrs” and “soldiers”; patriots are people who have given up something, in one way or another, for their country (Thoreau). Thoreau was showing everyone there was a distinct difference between being “virtuous” and having “virtue” (Thoreau). It should be noted though that there is a bit of a paradox in all of Thoreau’s passionate statements. What if a patriot can no longer be a patriot? “I believe that the State will soon be able to take all my work of this sort out of my hands, and then I shall be no better patriot than my fellow-countrymen” (Thoreau). Perhaps it is that fear of being unable to sacrifice that truly makes up the definition of patriotism.

Works Cited

Thoreau, Henry David. “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience.” New York: The New American Library, 1963. Print.

Thoreau and Today's Politics

Do you believe Thoreau's opinions/statements about patriotism were accurate? Do you believe they can be applied in today's society?

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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image


      23 months ago

      In Thoreau’s opinion, these were the true patriots of America. They fight for people’s rights when no one else does, and, most importantly, they do so despite adversity.

      What example could you reference from today?

      What are the people's rights?

      And who are the ones that don't fight for these rights.

      What is the adversity today?

      Why should we vote, when Thoreau says it is not important.

      The elected officials are the ones we elect to care for our rights, and if they don't do it, then don't reelect them.


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