This is the “Definition Essay” example I usually pass out to my ENG101 students. It’s from OWL, I believe, and is a fairly decent student sample.
Soldiers, Citizens, Voters
The United States is presently at war in Iraq and Afghanistan where American troops are fighting and dying. At home, cars and homes display solid yellow or red, white, and blue ribbons that call for Americans to “Support Our Troops.” It is patriotic for Americans to support their daughters and sons fighting in a war, but this patriotism does not mean that Americans must blindly support the decision to go to war. Being patriotic means that Americans must do the opposite: they must question their government. Questioning the government, voting, and respecting the rights of others are what make true patriots in a democratic society; blind following of one’s government creates dictatorships.
The United States government is not perfect, as evidenced by its history. For example, the government sanctioned the institution of slavery, denied women the right to vote for nearly 150 years, and prolonged a war in Vietnam that the government leaders knew they couldn’t win. Fortunately for the United States, in each of those cases, there were patriots that spoke out against what the United States was doing and brought about change. Without the abolitionist movement in the early nineteenth century, slavery may have existed far longer than it had already been allowed. Suffragettes from the late seventeenth century through 1920 gave women political equality–at least on paper. In more recent times, the protests of the 1960s finally led the United States to negotiate a peace long enough to get its troops out of Vietnam.
The above examples illustrate true patriotism. The government was wrong in its official positions, and the people who opposed those positions were right. Had those right-minded people not openly voiced their disapproval of what the government was doing, our history would not reflect the democratic principles it so publicly espouses. For a democracy to work, its citizens must keep informed and vocally express their approval and disapproval. The United States government should not proclaim that protestors are not patriotic. By their very act of thinking independently from the government, they are being true patriots.
People who agree with a government’s actions are patriots as well–so long as their agreements are based on how they analyze what the government is doing and base their agreement on thought and not on blind obedience. For example, patriotic proponents of the war in Afghanistan base their support on the need to eliminate Al Qaeda and not on simply accepting that the war is correct because government leaders say it is. These supporters for the war are doing so because they have analyzed why American troops are fighting there and have decided that the government is right. Patriotism is based on analysis and reasoned thought; it is not based on blind obedience.
Questioning the government is one part of the definition of an American patriot; a second part is taking that analysis of the government and acting on it through voting. To put it simply, patriots vote. However, voting for the American patriot is not simply casting ballots; it is knowing about the issues and then casting ballots. To vote for Democrats or Republicans simply because the voter has always voted for that party or because the voter’s family has always voted for that party is not being patriotic; it is again being blindly obedient. Voting requires knowledge of the candidates, knowledge of the issues, and ultimately an understanding of one’s own stand on the issues. For example, in 1948, Thomas Dewey was predicted by nearly all news services to win the Presidential election over incumbent Harry Truman. However, when election day was over, Truman had won by over 2 million votes. What the news services didn’t realize was that the United States was full of patriotic Americans who thought about their votes and didn’t simply follow trends. Truman, a supporter of stronger civil rights legislation and fighting communism in Korea, won because Americans thought about those issues and voted accordingly (Blum et al. 772).
Voting is a patriotic act, but most patriots go beyond voting and actively participate in the elections by campaigning for preferred candidates or issues. Active involvement in elections by patriotic voters creates a stronger base for candidates, who otherwise have only themselves and paid staff on which to depend. American patriots are people who work for their country’s good based on what they see as good for their country. Thus, when California citizens campaigned for Barbara Boxer in 1992 for the United States Senate, they were actively working for increased funding for crime prevention and paramedic training, two issues about which Boxer has been actively vocal (“The Issues”). These people were telling the rest of California that they believed that Boxer’s work for these issues would make a better California and United States. Just as patriotic soldiers volunteered for the Continental Army in 1774 to create a new nation that would better their lives, so did patriotic soldier voters volunteer for the Boxer campaign in 1992 to create a better world. Patriots are voters and workers!
Lastly, and most importantly, patriots respect the rights of others and demonstrate by actively contributing to the equal rights of all Americans. One specific action that patriots perform is willingly paying taxes. Without tax income, the national, state, and local governments would not be able to function. People would go uneducated, hungry, and sick in a world without police protection, good roads, schools, and government-funded health care for those citizens who cannot afford it. Patriots may wish that they could have the tax money in their own pockets, but patriots also realize that this tax money is necessary for a country that must meet the needs of all its citizens. Paying taxes shows respect for the government and for its citizens through being an active contribution to a stable, democratic society.
Another specific patriotic action is showing respect for other cultures. Following the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, reports came in of individual attacks on Muslims and people of Arab heritage in the United States. A Pakistani store owner was killed in Dallas; two Egyptian-Americans were killed in separate incidents in California; and in Gary, Indiana, a man turned an assault rifle on an Yemeni-born United States citizen. In what is probably the worst incident, 300 Americans marched in Chicago in an anti-Arab parade, with one man proclaiming, “‘I’m proud to be an American, and I hate Arabs, and I always have’” (Robinson). Well, patriotic Americans are not proud of him. An American patriot understands that in a democratic nation, an entire group is not judged by the actions of a few individuals. If a group were to be judged by a few individuals, then all Caucasian, Christian Americans should be hated because the bombers at the Oklahoma Federal building were white, Christian, American citizens.
The traditional picture of an American patriot is of a soldier in uniform, proudly carrying the American flag and a rifle. But that picture falls seriously short of the true picture of an American patriot. The true picture would show millions of people, of all races and heritage, some carrying protest signs, some handing out campaign literature, and everyone carrying a ballot.
Blum, John M., et al. The National Experience: A History of the United States.
5th ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
“The Issues.” Official Website of U. S. Senator Barbara Boxer. 2005. 1 Feb. 2005
Robinson, B. A. “Aftermath of the 9-11 Terrorist Attack: Attacks on Muslims.” Religious
Tolerance.org. 2001. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. 1 Feb. 2005
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.