A Note on Patriotism and a Rare Heinlein Mistake

From this Robert Heinlein address to Naval midshipmen:

Today, in the United States, it is popular among selfstyled “intellectuals” to sneer at patriotism. They seem to think that it is axiomatic that any civilized man is a pacifist, and they treat the military profession with contempt. “Warmongers”-” Imperialists”- “Hired killers in uniform”-you have all heard such sneers and you will hear them again. One of their favorite quotations is: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

It is rare that I disagree with Robert Heinlein; I have great respect for the man not just as a writer but as a philosopher.

But with regard to the quote above, (from the excellent essay on patriotism posted at this political site) there seems to be a simple error-of-fact. The quote above is from Dr. Samuel Johnson, a well-known English writer of the 1700s; he’s reputed to have said this on April 7, 1775. Many people quote the saying, believing it supports their position that patriotism is a “problem” or “character flaw” that must be excised from the American psyche. David Orr, for example, has written a book called “The Last Refuge” to this exact purpose. Robert Heinlein treated Johnson’s quote as though it were an attack on patriotism.

But this was not at all what Dr. Johnson meant. He was an Englishman, and a patriot, in exactly the manner that modern US conservatives would approve of.

And he wrote extensively about patriotism, and why it was so very important to elect patriots as leaders of government.

It ought to be deeply impressed on the minds of all who have voices in this national deliberation, that no man can deserve a seat in parliament, who is not a patriot. No other man will protect our rights: no other man can merit our confidence.

He also wrote ways in which “false patriots” can be spotted — and it was to this end that his famous quote was directed.

For example:

Some claim a place in the list of patriots, by an acrimonious and unremitting opposition to the court. This mark is by no means infallible. Patriotism is not necessarily included in rebellion. A man may hate his king, yet not love his country. He that has been refused a reasonable, or unreasonable request, who thinks his merit underrated, and sees his influence declining, begins soon to talk of natural equality, the absurdity of “many made for one,” the original compact, the foundation of authority, and the majesty of the people. As his political melancholy increases, he tells, and, perhaps, dreams, of the advances of the prerogative, and the dangers of arbitrary power; yet his design, in all his declamation, is not to benefit his country, but to gratify his malice.


At the time I originally wrote this post, years ago, the leftist media was attacking patriotism as a very bad thing, and made mention of this quote to that end. Devoid of context, it IS easy to misunderstand it. But the Heinlein essay linked above, despite that one misunderstanding, is excellent — and shows how vital and how appropriate patriotism is. At the link above, some of the commenters did not understand, and you might find the resulting debate of some interest.

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • I don’t think that’s true, Jono. Here is the quote in context from the same speech at the link above:

    One of their favorite quotations is: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”

    What they never mention is that the man who made that sneering wisecrack was a fat, gluttonous slob who was pursued all his life by a pathological fear of death. I propose to prove that that baboon on watch is morally superior to that fat poltroon who made that wisecrack.

    This, to me, seems to be a direct reference to Johnson himself. What do you think?

    Incidentally, welcome. You will find that there are a lot more active commenters on the LiveJournal version of these posts.

    One week ago this evening, I met officers of the Heinlein Society; an enjoyable get-together. The occasion was the pre-screening of the Heinlein-based film Predestination.

    ==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • Jono

    Heinlein never said that he was talking about Johnson. He said that the liberals of his day found that quote to be one of their favorites.

  • The Gruamach

    See, I always read that quote of Heinlein in a kind of “from the other end” perspective.
    Not that patriotism was a scoundrelous act, but that a scoundrel will hide behind it, and disguise himself as a patriot, in order to deceive those around him and trick them into believing his selfish intentions are for everyone’s good and not just his own personal gain.