Patriotic Acts

Every generation finds its own definition of patriotism. For the author, it’s rooted in a Vietnam-era boyhood on Lexington Green and is flourishing amid a post-Seattle awakening.

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Because the town common stood athwart the route toward the colonial militia’s arms dump; because John Hancock and Sam Adams were staying in the town’s parsonage; because the redcoats were slow leaving Boston and hence lost the cover of darkness — because of these happenstances, Lexington, Massachusetts, the town where I grew up, never quite manages the pure and untainted self-satisfaction of other modern American suburbs. Mini-mansions crowd its subdividing lots, and its luxe schools register ever higher test scores. But the Battle Green, a few acres of lawn near the town center that you pass on the way to the Stop & Shop, poses a quiet question about that suburban comfort. Eight men died here. A war that gave birth to a new nation with a new idea began here. It is the same gentle yet insistent interrogation that American history in general poses to the rich, smug moment in which we live. It has something to do with what it means to be a patriot. And after a year that’s seen major disruptions in Seattle, outside the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and in the political convention cities, it’s a question worth trying to hear through the noise of the now.

When I was 11, and my dad was 42, the Vietnam Veterans Against the War announced plans to camp overnight on the Battle Green — “the birthplace of American liberty” — as part of their campaign to end the fighting in Southeast Asia. Local law prohibited late-night loitering on that hallowed ground, but on the evening of the demonstration the town’s selectmen scheduled a meeting to decide whether the rule would be enforced. I remember driving to the meeting in the back of the family Plymouth — downtown was oddly deserted and quiet, except for the ominous rumbling pops from the motorcycles of vets arriving early for the encampment. They were hippies, most of them, or so I believed — I had seen a number of hippies hanging around Harvard Square, and these looked about as hairy and unauthorized.

Town Hall was jammed. The good liberal residents, who had moved to Lexington in the last decade in search of schools for their children, were out in force, hissing at the town selectmen, mostly lifelong Lexingtonians who sold real estate or funerals or nursing home beds. By a bare majority they voted to authorize the arrest of the demonstrators, and when they did, those good liberals flooded out of the hall and down the road to the Green.

Night had fallen by now. In the dark, circles of vets and residents coalesced, lit by cigarette glow or flashlight. Rumors swept through: The police were coming. No, the National Guard was coming. The night crackled.

At 10 or 11, Mom took me and my brother home to bed — school the next day, after all, and that is why we were in Lexington too — but Dad stayed behind. A mild, churchgoing business reporter, he had made up his mind to stay. He might not have traveled somewhere else to protest the war, but the strife had come to his town, and he — and hundreds other of those good local liberals — were willing to make a stand. By the time we woke up, he was back home, with stories of the holding pen where they’d been taken, booked, fined, released. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember how proud I was — am still — of his decision. And I remember the glamour of that evening. Something untoward — angry, sexy, zealous, tough, righteous — had happened in this place that, like all suburbs, devoted itself to keeping the untoward at bay.

The following summer, wearing a tricorne hat, I took my own place on the Green. Along with mall clerking and Kentucky frying, Lexington offered its youth a unique opportunity for summer earnings: conducting tours of the Green for the tourists who arrived, busload after busload, all day long. A kindly old Episcopal priest administered the test and signed your guide’s license, offering you the right to sit on the guide’s bench and play endless rounds of Risk while waiting for your turn in the rotation. When it came, you needed to spiel speedily or else your busload might be summoned back aboard its coach before you had the chance to pass your hat and collect your pay. As a result, the normal singsong drone of a tour guide was married to the slightly desperate rush of an auctioneer. Most of the tourists really wanted to know the location of the nearest toilet. Most of the time I really wanted to flirt with the girl guides, who looked cuter in their tricorne hats than could reasonably be expected.

Still, four or five times a day, summer after summer, I’d tell the stories: the oldest man on the Green, Jonas Parker, who knelt over his hat full of musket balls, bayoneted before he could get off a second shot; Jonathan Harrington, mortally wounded in the first volley, who crawled a hundred yards to his front doorstep where he died in the arms of his wife. These were not isolated, cranky, ideological Ruby Ridge don’t-tread-on-me outcasts: About every man in Lexington belonged to that company of minutemen; almost every family in town suffered some casualty. When news of the fight spread, similar companies poured in from every surrounding town. The Lexington militia had a captain — John Parker — but he was an elected captain, who consulted with his neighbors. They all believed in the most basic ideas of democracy: that power could grow big and remote. They were proto-Americans.

And so my sense of what it might mean to love your country formed on that Battle Green, equal parts fatigue-clad Vietnam vet and musket-toting farmer. Community, courage, rebelliousness, adolescent lust, all bled together in my head.

As of the year 2000, even through the novocaine of prosperity, most Americans can feel that something is out of kilter. Most clearly, money now drives politics in more fundamental ways with each election, each legislative session. That feeling underlies the general enthusiasm for, say, John McCain, and the general lack of enthusiasm for politics in general. Flush and busy, we’ve not yet gotten angry, but we will. And we’ll do something about it eventually, take one of those strides in the direction of democracy that mark our history. It’s already starting. We’re already stirring.

Granny D tells this truth better than anyone else at the moment. Last spring, not long after she’d finished her solo march, at age 90, across the nation to demand campaign finance reform, I listened to this New Hampshire grandmother. We were outside the Capitol in Washington, and some of the schoolkids waiting in line recognized her — her picture had just been in Time for Kids, with her reflective orange vest designed to protect her from traffic and advertise her Web site ( In a flash she had gathered perhaps a hundred high schoolers around for an impromptu teach-in on what was wrong with our politics (corporate control) and how it could be fixed (public financing of campaigns). The kids listened transfixed. “She could have finished that walk in nine months,” her son Jim said as he watched. “But it took 14 because she never walked away from a question.”

The reason Granny D and I were outside the Capitol that morning is that we planned on getting arrested. Along with a couple of dozen other people organized by the Alliance for Democracy, we wanted to protest the links between campaign finance corruption and environmental destruction. Our plan was to wait in line, get tickets, blend in with the crowd until we were inside the rotunda, and then unfurl our banners. A savvy plot, except that the protest organizers also wanted us to hold a press conference on the Capitol lawn before we went indoors, which sort of blew our cover. Fortunately, the Capitol Hill police, who seemed interested in order above all, took matters in hand, and after we’d preached for the cameras they marched us into the rotunda for an on-time arrest. There, in short order, we pulled out our sign that said “Stop Global Warming: Ban Campaign Contributions from Global Warmers,” shouted a few spirited sentences that were lost in the room’s lofty acoustics, and then were arrested and led out in handcuffs to a waiting bus. The high schoolers still waiting in line chanted, “Don’t Arrest Granny D,” as we drove away, their heroine waving her cuffed hands cheerfully out the window. It took a few hours to process us, and then we were back on the street, clutching slips of paper with the date and courtroom for our trials. C-Span aired our demonstration, and “All Things Considered” carried a nice piece, but all in all it was no big deal. The world retained its composure.

Still, the demonstration and arrest meant a good deal to me, my first official legal trouble at the age of 39, right about the same age that my father too had decided to lay down his cloak of journalistic objectivity and take a stand. This scene was almost as good as the Battle Green — we had been arrested directly in front of a splendid painting, one of four huge canvases of the Revolutionary era that dominate the rotunda. There were obvious scenes: the Continental Congress signing the Declaration of Independence, Burgoyne surrendering at Saratoga, and Cornwallis giving up at Yorktown. But the painting that served as our backdrop was less dramatic at first glance. It showed Washington resigning his commission before Congress in December of 1783, once the war was safely over.

To understand the great significance of that scene requires a little lore, mostly forgotten now. When hostilities with Britain ceased, Congress kept the army intact. But the loose confederation of states lacked the authority to levy taxes and hence couldn’t pay the troops. Many of the officers faced ruin if they returned home — their affairs had been neglected during the struggle, and debtor’s prison was a possibility for some. In such a dangerous vacuum, little wonder that many officers grew restive, almost treasonous. In the fall of 1783, some of them held a meeting to try to draft Washington as a sort of military emperor. The mutineers were numerous, and they gathered in a hall in Newburgh, New York, one evening to advance their plot. Washington attended, and told them he was dead set against such sedition. But his address failed to completely turn the grim-faced tide. He reached into his coat pocket to fish out a letter from a congressman, hoping it would sway sentiment. He held it at arm’s length, twisted and turned it — and then reached into another pocket for a pair of glasses. “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country,” he said. That small aside from a man not given to self-pity was sufficient to remind his listeners of the hardships they had nobly endured together, none more than their general, and it reduced many of the officers to tears. They barely listened as he read the letter, so eager were they now to vote a repudiation of the whole scheme.

“This was probably the most important single gathering ever held in the United States,” historian James Thomas Flexner wrote. Indeed, for had it gone the other way this nation would have been founded on different principles in a different spirit, a mutation of our political chromosome in the direction of concentrated power that would have warped everything that came after. Later that year Washington resigned his commission, in the great scene before which our tiny, echoing drama now played out.

The one-score and twelve of us gathered again a few weeks later in D.C. Superior Court for our trial. Judge Eugene Hamilton, chief judge of the court, presided — he was an African American, and his very presence was something of a testimony to the tides of the nation’s history. But he appeared stern — the case before ours involved a local woman who failed to appear because, according to her lawyer, she needed to take care of her children. The judge studied the probation report, noted no mention of her children, and issued a bench warrant for her apprehension.

Then he turned to us, all white, well scrubbed, and ready to plead guilty. Did we understand, he asked, that the charge of “demonstrating inside the Capitol” carried a possible penalty of six months in jail and a $500 fine? Yes, we said, somberly. Had we been promised any deals by any prosecutor? No, we said truthfully. And then he invited us to say what we would — to “make our allocutions” — before he rendered a sentence.

Granny D led us once again, speaking in the clearly enunciated tones of someone who took her schooling in a different era. She’d reached her 10th decade without legal trouble, she said, adding, “I do care what my neighbors think about me.” But, she declared, “this old woman who stands before you was arrested for reading the Declaration of Independence in America’s Capitol building. I shudder to think what might have happened had I read from the Bill of Rights.” Perhaps, she continued, the judge was concerned that “we might have been blocking the halls of our government. Let me assure you we stood to one side of the rotunda where we would not be in anyone’s way. But the halls are indeed blocked over there. They’re blocked by the shameless sale of public policy to campaign contributors.” She called it bribery — said she hoped to see the day when “lobbyists and elected officials were dragged from the Capitol building and the White House, their wrists tied, not ours. If that happened, I would be home in New Hampshire, happily applauding the television news.” Piss and vinegar, in other words, completely firm but always polite.

And what was anyone going to say to her? She was 90 years old, she’d walked all the way from Los Angeles, and she was right. And what was anyone going to say to those who followed her? To Anna Hargis, a cheerful registered nurse who had run for Georgia Public Service commissioner to expose corrupt deals allowing unsafe gas pipelines, and along the way managed to collect 45 percent of the vote. To John Friedrich, who runs a nonprofit in D.C. that grows organic food and opens farmers’ markets in poor areas, but who was sick of watching environmentalists outgunned by industry in one congressional vote after another. Or to Gayle Davidson, from rural western Massachusetts, who works with abused children one by one but would like Congress to do something about the fact that a fifth of our kids live below the poverty line. Or to the three or four of us there who had been working on global warming issues for a decade — writing books, making speeches, organizing movements. In Europe such efforts had begun to work, but here, even though scientists had long since reached a consensus on the scariness of the problem, any action was blocked by the power of the coal and car lobbyists on the Hill. Our impotence — the impotence that led us to stand in the rotunda with a cheesy vinyl sign — could be measured in every cubic meter of air.

Patriotism is about to start meaning something different in this country. Since America has stopped sending its soldiers into harm’s way (our Kosovo and Iraq campaigns, whatever you think of their aims, were conducted to make certain almost no Americans would be at risk), and since we face no discernible foreign threat, patriotism won’t be about the VFW and the American Legion a generation hence. It’s curious, in fact, how the older version of Americanism has all but disappeared from political rhetoric in the last few years, dying faster than the generation that fought Hitler. There’s the occasional attempt to pass a flag-burning amendment, but it barely even registers: The new political rhetoric of the mainstream is entirely about individuals, about our individual prosperity. When the right wing took Congress, what did they propose? A contract with America. The night of our sentencing, a few blocks down the street at the basketball arena, President Clinton was hosting his last big fundraiser, raking in over $26 million from corporations and lobbyists. And pretending, by wearing blue jeans, eating barbecue, and listening to country and western stars, that the evening was about real people.

But this phase of, in essence, using the country for our own individual ends, allowing ourselves to be bought off by economic prosperity, is passing already, the first symptoms of its mortal illness appearing in the streets of Seattle. The problems are too real for it not to: the encroaching power of global corporations, the looming questions of environment and health and justice that can’t be solved within the politics that now exists. The pull of American history — the pull against concentrated power — is too strong. Or so one must hope. There are fledgling movements to control corporations so the next generation of American kids doesn’t take up smoking, to keep half of Africa from dying of AIDs in the name of drug company profits, to stabilize the temperature of the planet, to free our campaigns from the taint of private cash. And right now they fall under the category of patriotic duty.

When we’d finished testifying in court that day, Judge Hamilton, who had paid close attention to everyone’s words, cleared his throat. “All right,” he said. “As you know, the strength of our great country lies in its Constitution and its laws, in her institutions and in her courts.” Our hearts sank just a little; he sounded fierce.

But, he continued, “more fundamentally, the strength of our great country lies in the resolve of her citizens to stand up for what is right when the masses are silent. And unfortunately sometimes it becomes the lot of the few, sometimes like yourselves, to stand up for what’s right when the masses are silent because not always does the law move so fast and so judiciously as to always be right. But given the resolve of the citizens of this great country, in time, however slowly, the law will catch up. So it becomes my lot to apply the law as it is at this time. Perhaps not as it should be but as it is. With every confidence that to the extent that it is lacking in righteousness, it will reach that point eventually given the resolve of her citizens to make it right.”

We were sentenced to time served — our afternoon in the police station — and we were sent home, back out into our various Americas. A very small part of the very long chain that stretches back at least to the Battle Green, and — with any luck — forward into the always murky future.


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