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What does it mean to be a true patriot, in light of Eleanor Roosevelt's definition in her Book of Common Sense Etiquette?

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To write an essay in which you argue your position on what it means to be a true patriot, taking into consideration Roosevelt’s definition of patriotism from her Book of Common Sense Etiquette, consider that Roosevelt’s statement was made sixty years ago and evaluate with a contemporary sensibility how Roosevelt equates patriotism with a belief in American moral authority in the world.

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One way to reply to Eleanor Roosevelt’s concept of “true patriotism” is to challenge it. Without much difficulty, a reply could pick apart Roosevelt’s quote. Take the last part of the excerpt, in which Roosevelt encourages a “constant striving toward the principles and ideals on which this country was founded.” A response could argue that this country was founded on genocide and slavery, which aren’t principles and ideals that people should strive to replicate.

Now, return to the first part of the Roosevelt quote. One could argue that Roosevelt’s own husband, the former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), didn’t respect the dignity and freedom of people when he forced Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II.

Additionally, Roosevelt’s lofty sentiments about “universal brotherhood and good will” are in conflict with Harry Truman (who became president after FDR died) and his choice to drop two atomic bombs on Japan. Considering Roosevelt’s heartfelt quote, one can’t be blamed for expecting Roosevelt to condemn Truman’s decision to subject people to so much death and destruction. Yet in her syndicated news column “My Day,” Roosevelt finds ways to justify the horrific bombings, blaming Japan and their supposed refusal to surrender.

Finally, it’s possible to link Roosevelt’s elevated notion of true patriotism to the illustrious rhetoric of recent presidents. George W. Bush thought America should help end tyranny in the world. Barack Obama believed America should act on behalf of human dignity. Donald Trump thought America should provide a shiny example for other countries to emulate.

Like Roosevelt, these three figures had a universal, august view of American patriotism. As with Roosevelt, the noble theories about America don’t have a clear connection to what America physically does to the world and its inhabitants. Thus, one could reply that Roosevelt’s idea of true patriotism is mostly talk.

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To begin with, in order to respond to Eleanor Roosevelt’s definition of patriotism with your own argument, it would be helpful to consider some historical context. Sixteen years prior, the year following the death of her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt, the end of World War II, and the formation of the United Nations, Mrs. Roosevelt was appointed by President Truman as the American delegate to the UN convention on Human Rights. Using her worldwide popularity and patrician authority, Eleanor Roosevelt was instrumental in the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a nonbinding statement of guiding principles for UN member nations to adhere to in the postwar era in the second half of the twentieth century.

The definition of patriotism she suggests in the prompt is applied outward, universally, as an extension of the mythic American ideal cherished by the patriot. For Mrs. Roosevelt, patriotism is not just loving one’s own country and individual freedom or choosing to fight in defense of one’s way of life, but also an aspirational spiritual creed of “brotherhood,” “dignity,” and “good will” for the whole global community. Does this definition accord with your own idea of what it means to be a patriot, or does it challenge some aspect of your thinking? Some might not accept her ideas about universal ideals or America’s role as a beacon of human rights and dignity. Your thesis might recognize some agreement with her definition, but point out a particular flaw of her basic premise.

In the years since then, it has become much more difficult for people to agree on what it means to be a patriot or what America’s role in the world is, and much of the world has moved away from such universalist thinking as Roosevelt’s. In America as in many other places, the basic rights and dignities she mentions as the principles on which America was founded are still not equally distributed or upheld among all citizens, and it is worse in much of the rest of the world. The American political landscape of the last several years—demonstrated, for example, in the Capitol riots in January 2021—shows just how vast the differences in popular opinion have become about certain ideas that Roosevelt accepted as a given.

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Patriotism is a more complex idea than it first appears. It may seem perfectly simple and natural to love your country, but what exactly do you love? The physical landscape? The culture? The people? The Constitution?

Eleanor Roosevelt differentiates patriotism from nationalism by claiming that the patriot loves the nation and the principles on which it is founded. America, in her view, is great because it stands for freedom and equality, which ought to be universal. This is why a patriot, unlike a nationalist, does not focus on the territory, but on the ideas upon which the society rests, trying to share the advantages enjoyed by Americans with the rest of the world.

You will, of course, have your own views on whether this is a good definition of a true patriot, along with reasons for holding this view. The most difficult aspect of this essay, however, is the use of evidence. The question seems so abstract and subjective that it appears rather difficult to justify your response with evidence. A helpful approach, therefore, may be to select an example of someone you regard as a true patriot. Any of the Founding Fathers might be a good choice. I would choose Thomas Jefferson, since he did so much to articulate the principles and values on which the United States of America was founded (and which are very much in line with Eleanor Roosevelt's ideas, should you choose to adopt her definition). You can then develop your thesis using historical evidence about what Jefferson actually did and believed, which will make your argument less dependent on abstract reasoning, elegantly connecting your thesis to the evidence.

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