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Patriotism, circa 2004

"YOU CAN'T call yourself patriotic, your politics are all wrong." So said friend of mine in a recent conversation. It got me thinking this Patriots Day. We've celebrated this anniversary for years in Massachusetts. "Listen my children and you shall hear . . ." On April 18, 1775, Paul Revere and a few companions sounded the alarm that 700 British troops were advancing toward Concord.

Colonial Minutemen were ready when the British arrived on Lexington Green in the early morning hours of April 19. Shots were fired and the conflagration began. Later that day in Concord, the "shot heard round the world" precipitated a bloody battle, and the British retreated from the thousands who had answered the call to arms.

Patriots. It was clear in 1775.

Now we run a marathon to symbolize that ride, and few of us have to raise arms to defend our home. So who, in 2004, can lay claim to the term "patriot"? Is it good to be a patriot? Do I have to vote a particular party?

Patriotism has become a hot commodity since 9/11. Madison Avenue exhorts Americans to prove their allegiance to God and country through conspicuous consumption. The pursuit of Humvees is proof of happiness, and free checking means a free America. It's OK, I guess. The Sons of Liberty, those audacious rabble rousers who met in secret to foment a revolution, were just as concerned with economic freedom as they were with the right to bear arms.

But here in Boston, on the Freedom Trail, we have a different view of the meaning of words like patriotism. Every time we turn a corner in this splendid city, another historic place is there to remind us that the people of 18th century Boston Town were not afraid to declare their independence, and they were deadly serious about what it meant to be a patriot.

We can imagine them, 5,000 strong in the benches and the balconies of the Old South Meeting House as they prepared for the Boston Tea Party.

We can hear the rants and shouts of a weary but determined throng assembled under the balcony of Old State House as the words "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" were read to them for the first time from the Declaration of Independence. The meaning of patriotism was clear to them all. It meant they would be free to openly debate one another and challenge the government of their making. They would educate their children as they chose, and worship if they chose. They would write their own laws, enforce them, and change them if they needed changing. They would have these freedoms if it meant they had to die in the street for them, and a lot of them did. These liberties are commonplace to us now, but at the time the American Revolution began they were little more than the dreams of those few determined people.

Almost two and a half centuries since 1775, we live the miracle of American democracy, warts and all. Every choice we make about how to live our lives is a gift from those early patriots. We scrap and scrape and go to battle every day to have our say and make our way. Now, as then, the debate can be ugly.

John Adams shared a few choice words about the press in a letter to his wife Abigail: "[They]. . . are hot, indiscreet men . . . under the influence of others as hot, rash, and injudicious as themselves." Sound familiar? All men are endowed by "God" or "their creator" with "certain unalienable rights." Now that was a debate.

Today we rail against corporate greed and gnash our teeth over a gravely flawed health care system. We wonder where the jobs have gone, and fret for all the children who come home to empty houses. In the gaping hole of our collective hearts, we grieve for the America we lost on a beautiful September morning, and we cannot bear to look at the images of too many, too young, who have died in a desert too far away.

This year Americans will again exercise the birthright secured for us in the Revolution. We will vote in a national election to select our president. The debate will be rancorous, the process imperfect. But we will do it openly and freely, on the airwaves, at the picket fences, and on the produce lines. It is just as the founders intended.

I encourage Bostonians to spend time on the Freedom Trail this election year. Taxes, trade, labor disputes, education, and, of course, war, ugly and sad were all part of the debate right here so many years ago. Let these beautiful places tell you their breathtaking stories. Extend a nod of appreciation to the people who lived them and left them for us to recall and retell to the world. Debate, dissent, participate, and vote. We owe it to them.

My friend and I want the same things for America, but have oh-so-different views about how to get them. We cajole, quarrel, disagree, and sometimes even call one another names. We are reckless in the way we deride one another's choice of candidates and turn words like liberal and conservative into caricatures. We love our country together and we grieve together. We know that each of has a potent weapon to employ in advance of our views. We are equally powerful. We have our voice, we cast our vote. We are patriots.

Linda McConchie is executive director of the Freedom Trail Foundation. 

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