In my grade school long ago, each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and a patriotic song. Recent events have me asking, to what were we pledging? The flag is a potent symbol, but of what?
Nation emphasizes people; country emphasizes place. “One nation indivisible” asserts a shared American culture, which my teachers called a melting pot. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner thought an American ethos of self-reliance and individualism arose from the interaction of people with place on the American frontier. “A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness,” we sang. “Through every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
What our public officials and military personnel swear to uphold, however, is neither people nor place, nor any individual or agency, but the United States Constitution. The patriotic songs in my grade school didn’t mention it. It lacks the clarion call of “land of the free, home of the brave” or the tenderness of “land that I love . . . my home, sweet home.” Only in high school and beyond did I realize the Constitution's primary claim on my allegiance as an American.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.