What exactly is patriotism? In the last few months, that question has been asked often both here in the United States and abroad. In a new collection of music, poems, stories and speeches called “A Patriot’s Handbook,” Caroline Kennedy celebrates America and the diversity of ideas and ideals which makes this country strong. She shares a preview of the book on “Today.” Here's an excerpt:
This book is my collage of America. It is for my children and others growing up in a world where being an American brings responsibilities as well as opportunities. As parents, we are part of a continuum between generations and must decide what important values we want to pass on. As we gather with family and friends over Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, we have a chance to reflect on the continuity of ideas and principles that have inspired Americans for the past 225 years. That process must be ongoing, for now it is our turn to reinterpret these values for our children, to strengthen their belief in America, and in the spirit of limitless possibilities that will determine their future.
In the days before mass media, the stories of our Founding Fathers were passed down orally from generation to generation. My grandmother, who was born in 1890, carried on this tradition in our family, and gatherings at her house almost always included a recitation of Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” The poem combined Grandma’s patriotism and love of history with her belief that one person could change the course of history. Reciting it together became a powerful way of reinforcing those values in our family.
In our own time, books and photographs, plays, movies, and television play a similar role. War movies like “Gone With the Wind,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Longest Day,” “Patton,” “Apocalype Now,” and “The Deer Hunter” have shaped our national mythology; “The Civil War” series on PBS deepened our national understanding of that conflict. When I was a child, my mother took my brother, John, and me to the Broadway musical 1776, which brought the Founding Fathers to life. We memorized the songs, disagreed fiercely over the relative superiority of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, and wondered why New York abstained from all the important votes. A recent revival cast the name spell over my own children and prompted a curiosity about American history that extended throughout the process of researching this book. When I asked for their help, my daughter Tatiana responded with the best title, “A Patriot’s Handbook.”
The story of the American Revolution has a special appeal for children, who identify with the triumph of the ragtag colonists over the mighty King George. It appeals to their love of the underdog, their sense of fairness, and a desire for a happy ending. But more important, children have an immense capacity for faith and for patriotism. If their introduction to the story of our country is captivating, they can develop a lifelong interest in history and a willingness to engage in civic life. As we grow older, that interest becomes more informed, and more critical. I have tried to include selections in this book that reflect different views of America — what is best, and what could be better — because patriotism requires understanding our limitations as well as our strengths.
Understanding and renewing our commitment to our fundamental civic values is a process of turning and returning to the words that deined the challenges of the past, inspired generations before us, and offer renewed insight for our own time. The words and images in this book are for sharing, as a conversation helps make the ideals our own. As I researched the selections, I was struck by the fact that we often talk with friends about movies, sports, or TV, but less often about patriotism, although being an American is one of the most profound experiences that we share. I hope that making these documents more accessible will make it easier for these conversations to occur. Of course, there are many varied realities within our society, but as a nation, there is more that unites than divides us. One of the ways we come to understand something is to compose our own narrative. Each person’s story may be different, but in the process of assembling it, we can discover themes that connect us. As this book is intended for families, I have tried to include selections for all ages, songs and poems that appeal to children, speeches that helped turn the tide of history, judicial opinions that transformed our society, images that capture America’s sense of self at a particular time, and expressions of personal yet universal truths.
Ultimately, this is a personal selection, but one that I hope will encourage others to create similar collections of their own. The best part of putting it together was researching the myriad possibilities, the difficult part was deciding what to leave out. I read new works, as well as old favorites. I thought it important that the documents be long enough to give a sense of the whole, and decided not to use quotations or short excerpts, even though it meant there could be fewer entries. I wanted the selections to go beyond politics yet remain focused on the ideal of America.
In the process I rediscovered how many gifts we are given as Americans. Among the most precious are the freedoms we cherish yet sometimes take for granted, the diversity of heritage and experience that strengthens us, a society that celebrated tolerance and community, and a belief in the power of words to change the world. This country was founded on ideas — freedom, equality, the pursuit of happiness — and the fact that we have the oldest written Constitution in the world is proof of the enduring power of those principles. Those words and ideas have drawn millions to this country in search of the American dream. In order for our democracy to thrive, each of us must give something back. We must make a commitment not just to vote, but to be engaged, to understand the sources of our rights and freedoms and the struggles of those who fought and died to preserve them. Our nation celebrated the individual, and just as it provides for us, so it expects of us. America has given us her best. Now it is our turn.
Excerpted from “A Patriot’s Handbook: Songs, Poems, Stories, and Speeches Celebrating the Land We Love,” selected and introduced by Caroline Kennedy. Copyright © 2003 by Caroline Kennedy. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of Hyperion Books.