America est patria mea.
It was the first line, in Latin, of the opening lesson of my junior high school Latin textbook. It translates "America is my native country." And these decades later, I still remember it clearly.
The lesson continued (in Latin):
America is our native country.
Our native country is a beautiful land. And later,
Europe is not my native country.
Asia is not my native country.
America is my native country.
Yet, 40 years later, I can still recall those words, both in Latin and in English. They impressed me at the time with a great point. No matter where our families may have originated, no matter when or how they came to this country, or if, as Will Rogers was fond of remarking about his own ancestors, they met the Mayflower when it docked, for all of us, by birth or adoption, America est patria nostra, America is our native country.
It is from patria, of course, that we get the word "patriotism." It is a strangely powerful and compelling emotion. We are sometimes a little ashamed of it, a little abashed by it. A love of country, of flag, can seem unsophisticated. But it is there, nonetheless. And the feeling of patriotism, of pride in our country, catches us at unsuspected moments like schoolboys surprised into seriousness.
Sir Walter Scott caught it in that sublime moment in "The Lay of the Last Minstrel," when he wrote:
Breathes there the man,America est patria mea. No matter who I am, no matter whence I came—patria mea.
with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is mine own, my native land!
The genius of America has always been inclusion. The very flag of our country symbolizes the union of the thirteen colonies into a nation, an inclusion of the parts into the whole. We sometimes forget just how different those thirteen colonies were, one from another. Some were determinedly aristocratic, others were determinedly democratic; some were founded by those seeking to establish religious exclusiveness, others by those trying to escape from religious exclusiveness. Some were founded as great experiments in freedom, others were founded as cheap sources of raw materials for England. Yet, in spite of these differences, they came together in the spirit symbolized by the flag. They became inclusive. They became Americans. That spirit of inclusiveness was tested again and again as wave after wave of men and women came to the shores of this nation. We went through bleak periods in our history when fear almost overcame us, when we sought to deny that inclusiveness to one group or another. Signs at job sites read "No Irish need apply." Drinking fountains were marked "white" and "colored" (the ones in our local Woolworth store puzzled me as a youngster, since they were both clearly white porcelain). Military commanders said, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."
But in the end, the spirit of America, the spirit symbolized by the flag, won out. America est patria nostra.
One of the most remarkable insights concerning the future of America, the working out of those conflicts, came from Albert Pike. It is a passage I am fond of quoting, because it shows just how a great mind can see past the dangers and into the future of a nation. It was a speech, given to a Masonic gathering in Washington, D.C., in March, 1860.
"This latest of republics, this great country, in which, fortunately, there is ample scope for the experiment, if, as it were, an immense crucible, wherein is now being carried onward to successful or unsuccessful issue, the grandest work of alchemy that a wondering world has ever fixed its gaze upon.As Pike foresaw, that is the great strength of America. It is big enough and great enough to contain and include all our differences and make them into sources of strength, not dissension. That is our genius. Wherever we came from, however and whenever we came, America est patria nostra.
"For here are flung together thirty-one millions of people, native and foreign-born, of many races, and speaking many tongues, of every creed and faith, of every phase of opinion, of many habits of thought…a vast mass of apparently discordant elements, hostile, heterogeneous, incongruous; to be, if possible by any chemistry, made in process of time to combine into one whole…in order finally to establish a new, distinct and grand nationality…ruled by the great ideas of popular liberty and order, of brotherhood, and equality, in the eye of the law, with a national character, one, original, with no prototype; in which nationality and character all the varying shades of race, temperament and peculiarity are not to be obliterated or tamed down into one monotonous sameness, but blended, mingled and combined into one admirable harmonious whole."