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A study in Psychology Science shows that people who consider themselves patriots tend to be happier and healthier. The study also highlighted a key difference between two types of patriotism: national and civic. According to the distinction, nationalists rally around a shared ethnicity or religion. Civic-minded patriots rally around a set of institutions and laws. The study found that the latter group tended to be happier.
American patriotism can, and should be considered as one of the earliest forms of civic patriotism. The earliest American patriots rallied around ideals rather than their shared British ancestry. This group of colonists shared a vision that was based on the ideals of unity and equality.
In 1776 during the time Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence, Great Britain considered many of the most affluent American colonists to be socially inferior because of their lack of distinguished ancestry. For many American colonists, the Declaration of Independence represented more than opposition to British taxation and military control. It was a reaction to the British social structure itself, and an expression of the belief that human worth is inherent and not determined by one's social status at birth.
Jefferson wrote the famous words, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
This passage established a philosophical basis for America's independence. It also created a new kind of patriotism. You did not need a distinguished ancestry, or any recognized ancestry at all, to be an American patriot. You did not need to be a duke or a lord to be respected in society. Patriotism stemmed from the idea -- however imperfectly realized at the time -- that all people should have equal rights.
The Declaration of Independence emphasized the need for unity. It called for selfless devotion to America and to fellow Americans, ending with the lines, "and for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."
Throughout the most critical moments in American history, American patriots have demonstrated a commitment to unity and equality. Many Youville residents grew up during World War II, a time of widespread sacrifice at home and abroad. Families united in the effort to support soldiers overseas and accepted food rationing as a consequence of the war. Women joined the workforce in unprecedented numbers. People grew vegetables in "Victory Gardens," to supplement the food supply. America's war efforts fostered patriotic unity and led to small steps forward toward equality. At a time when gender roles were rigidly defined, Eleanor Roosevelt urged women to learn trades and work in factories. She also successfully lobbied for the creation of the Women's Army Corps, enabling women to serve in a variety of military posts. Mrs. Roosevelt also helped create government-funded child day-care programs for working mothers. Over 100,000 women served in the military during World War II, with another 1,000 making up the first fleet of female pilots to fly military aircraft.
In the 1960s, the forces of unity and equality came together in the Civil Rights movement. Courageous black and white Americans broke social and racial barriers to end segregation. They challenged Jim Crow laws, putting personal safety at risk and enduring brutality and violence from segregationists and authorities. These protesters were true patriots who followed in the spirit of the founding fathers. They put their lives and reputations at risk for the sake of furthering America's commitment to equal rights for all people.
In a letter to his wife, written a day after having signed his name to the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote that Independence Day "ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more."
Two and a half centuries later, we still follow Adams' celebratory guidelines. The Fourth of July is the perfect time to reflect on the progress America has made in realizing its earliest ideals. As fireworks burst in the evening sky, we might pause to remember that patriotism is a work in progress. We can take pride in being American, and in the American ideal of equality that unites us and continues to bring us closer together.
Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England. See www.youvilleassistedliving.org.