No need to agree: Founding fathers considered dissent a form of patriotism

By Jim Matthews

Throughout our history as a nation, people have questioned the patriotism of others. Any time a public or private citizen questions authority, another person or group will often question that person with regard to his or her patriotism. So, what is patriotism?

Based on a Random House definition of patriotism, says patriotism is love, support and defense of one’s country. We often equate displaying the American flag as patriotism. We also see fighting in our armed forces as being patriotic. Some believe defending our president is being patriotic.

So is it patriotic to desecrate the American flag? Is it patriotic to refuse to serve in the military? Is it patriotic to oppose a president and his or her policies?

Let us look at this quote, which is often ascribed to Thomas Jefferson. The sources I consulted all said it is uncertain who wrote or spoke these words. However, they are powerful words: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.”

There are various forms of this quote, all saying essentially the same thing. This seems to say that acting in a way contrary to the norm in our political system is patriotism at its best.

What have others said about patriotism? Benjamin Franklin wrote, “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.” So before we agree to serve in the military, before we voice support for a president or other government official, we must be willing to dissent. And I believe this can take the form of questioning authority.

Theodore Roosevelt tells us: “To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American people.” These are pretty strong words from one of our presidents. He seems to be telling us we must question the authority of even the president of the United States.

I am not suggesting we must simply stop following the laws of our land for any reason. I am suggesting dissent comes in the form first of determining what we consider unjust or immoral. To dissent simply because we do not like a law because it inconveniences us or it is simply not to our liking is not dissent that is helpful. To dissent only to injure someone else would seem unjust. Dissent suggests taking a principled stance to help others see our point.

So, what can dissent look like? Peacefully protesting through parades and demonstrations in public places looks like dissent to me. Voicing opinions publicly and privately looks like dissent to me. Refusing to vote in a political contest which neither candidate meets the criteria set by the individual looks like dissent to me.

Whoever uttered or wrote the words ascribed to Thomas Jefferson directly linked dissent and patriotism. I believe Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt implied the connection, too. What does this mean for us today?

What I suggest for myself I suggest for everyone. When an office holder does well, let him or her know. This allows office holders to know what is important to you.

When I see something I believe is wrong, I must let the appropriate authorities know about it. If they ignore me I have to decide if it is important enough to protest the actions. A good question to ask is whether an action violates any moral or ethical code. If so, I must participate in organized actions to stop or change the behavior.

An important point to remember is that those who believe I am wrong have as much a responsibility to act in dissent as I do.

Jim Matthews is a long-time resident of Greenfield. You may share your comments at