What Is Jingoism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Patriotism in the U.S. is often cultivated in young children.
Patriotism in the U.S. is often cultivated in young children.

Jingoism is a pejorative phrase used to describe chauvinistic patriotism, characterized by a readiness to go to war and support for a very aggressive foreign policy. Like other pejoratives, it is not usually used self-referentially. The term may be used to describe bellicose politicians or administrations, and also individual citizens. Someone who is jingoistic might also be called a “war hawk,” the opposite of a “dove,” a moderate who promotes peaceful solutions.

The origins of the term are actually rather interesting. It begins with the term “by jingo,” which was used as a euphemism for “by Jesus” as early as the 17th century. The term was common enough into the 1800s that it was included in an 1878 British music hall song which was meant to stir up Britons, encouraging them to go to war with Russia. The rhetoric in the song included the line “We don't want to fight, yet by jingo! if we do...” The song also contained references to Britain's superior military strength, and argued that Britons had an obligation to ensure that “the Russians shall not have Constantinople.”

The slang term “jingoism” quickly caught on to describe an attitude which promoted war with another nation. In the United States, the term was adopted several years later, and it became a popular replacement for “spread-eaglelism.” Spread-eagleism referred to stretching the wings of the national symbol of the United States, thereby gaining more influence and territory. Both terms were featured in a number of amusing political cartoons which sometimes included clever puns like replacing the “jingle” of “jingle bells” with “jingo.”

The term is generally used to describe politicians who are overly aggressive, or supporters of an unpopular war. During the Second World War, for example, politicians who promoted a rapid and aggressive approach were not usually accused of jingoism, since the war enjoyed a huge groundswell of popular support. On the other hand, the Falklands War in the early 1980s was accompanied by a great deal of sentiment which was perceived as jingoistic, fanned by the flames of national fervor.

When political rhetoric is heavily influenced by jingoism, it usually appeals to nationalistic sentiments, encouraging good patriots to agree with the views promoted. It may also be very simplistic, eliding complex issues in favor of basic propaganda. Citizens of nations who are preparing to go to war may see a fair amount of jingoism on display, especially if the war is hotly contended amongst citizens and politicians.

Jingoism and Nationalism

Many people consider jingoism to be synonymous with nationalism. However, while these two things have a number of things in common, they are not the same. It may be more accurate to say that jingoism is a consequence when nationalistic feelings and attitudes get out of hand. An excellent example is the First World War, which was the result of a century of building nationalism turning to jingoism, with grave, long-term impacts on nearly everyone on the planet that we continue to deal with.

At its best, nationalism is a quiet belief among citizens of a nation-state that they owe a duty of allegiance to their government. This can be a positive thing, encouraging citizens to take some pride in their communities and embracing values their government represents, such as freedom, pluralism and rights of the individual. However, when tainted by bigotry and intolerance, healthy nationalism can metastasize into an aggressive form of jingoism.

Nationalism as a Force for Good

One of the earliest examples of nationalism as a positive force was the Roman Empire, the first truly pluralistic nation in history. Much of Roman culture and society would horrify us here in the 21st Century, and there were many cruel practices that Romans found perfectly acceptable. Nonetheless, Rome's government during the 200-year period known as the Pax Romana (Roman Peace) was remarkably successful at unifying the diverse peoples of the Mediterranean Basin and much of Europe and the Middle East.

Issues such as skin color, religious faith, sexual orientation and ethnicity were irrelevant; anyone willing to adopt the Latin language, acknowledge the Emperor's divinity and abide by Roman laws were considered Roman citizens. Despite periodic revolts, civil disturbances, minor conflicts and an ongoing rivalry with the Persian Empire to the east, citizens of Rome enjoyed stability and a higher standard of living than people outside of it. In large part, this was driven by the nationalistic pride many Roman citizens felt at being part of the Empire.

How Nationalism Reshaped the Map of Europe

Like jingoism, nationalism, as we think of it today, is a rather recent phenomenon in history. Between the fall of Rome and the rise of modern nation-states in the late Middle Ages, an individual was more likely to identify with their faith and local community more than the kingdom in which they lived. This began to change when the European powers began to conquer peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas, turning those lands into colonies as well as sources of wealth. Even then, the competition was not based on a sense of nationality, but rather the acquisition of land, gold and slaves — at least in the beginning. In the meantime, nationalism led to the formation of modern Germany and Italy, which, prior to the 1870s, had been loose confederations of independent principalities and mini-states.

Modern-day nationalism began its rise in the wake of the Congress of Vienna, which ended the Napoleonic Wars. Many ethnic groups in Europe found themselves under the control of foreign powers that had little respect for the cultures and histories of the peoples they ruled over. As nationalism turned into jingoism over the decades of the 19th Century, the socio-political pressures continued to build.

It all culminated in the First World War; old empires fractured along ethnic lines. The great powers of Europe began losing their colonies as nationalist-fueled uprisings in those regions increased. Ultimately, nationalism brought an end to most of the multi-ethnic empires that survived World War 1 (namely, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union).

The kind of nationalism that can lead to jingoism is still behind many rivalries between nation-states today. Although economics also play a major part, nationalism can drive foreign policy, making for a nation-state that does not cooperate willingly with others.

Exceptionalism

A phrase often heard or read in the media is "the end of American exceptionalism." Exceptionalism is not the same as jingoism or nationalism, although it can drive those things. When something (or someone) is exceptional, simply means that it is different, and often superior to the norm.

In a world where oppression and tyranny have often been the norm, democratic societies such as the U.S., Canada and the majority of modern nations can indeed be considered exceptional. Unfortunately, when a nation has a great deal of wealth and power and one group of people in pluralistic societies set themselves above the rest, reserving certain rights and privileges to themselves while denying them to others, exceptionalism can devolve into extreme nationalism and ultimately, jingoism.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a HistoricalIndex researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

DinoLeash

@wesley91- Honestly, I had never even heard of the word “jingoism”. I looked it up and was surprised to find that a couple of the Rambo movies have been referred to as being “jingoistic”. Not sure how I feel about that...

GrumpyGuppy

@wesley91- The only example that I can think of is when President Theodore Roosevelt was accused of jingoism. His wartime attitude raised many eyebrows.

In 1895, Roosevelt was quoted as saying “…if by ‘jingoism’ they mean a policy in pursuance of which American will with resolution and common sense insist upon their rights being respected by foreign powers, then we are ‘jingoes’.”

wesley91

Can someone give a more specific example of jingoism in America?

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    • Patriotism in the U.S. is often cultivated in young children.
      By: Glenda Powers
      Patriotism in the U.S. is often cultivated in young children.