By definition a patriot is: "one who loves his or her country and supports its authority and interests." Since the early 1600's, people living in the American colonies have had varied interpretations as to the meaning of the word "patriot." The colonists referred to themselves as patriots, but the English referred to them as revolutionaries. Calling these revolutionaries "patriots," is something that historians have done since prior to the Revolutionary War and one which we currently associate with those persons in the colonies who supported the American Revolution.
American colonists used the term "patriot" prior to the Revolutionary War when referring to members of the American Patriot Party. The members of the American Patriot Party, also known as Whigs, Radical Whigs or Patriot Whigs in England, shared similar colonial policies. Though the true meaning of the word "patriot" did not change who the colonists were, it did change with their perspective of their actions. Those early "Patriot Party" colonists in Massachusetts and Virginia during the 1600's referred to those groups who were asserting colonial rights and showed resistance to the directives of the King. The other group was the "Moderate Party," which accepted the King's writ of quo warranto (granting himself authority) on property rights and colonial control. "By this time  there were two distinct parties, not only in the Virginia Company, but in the Virginia Colony, the one being known as the "Court party," the other as the "Patriot party"…In 1619 the Patriot party secured the right for the settlers in Virginia to elect a Representative Assembly…This was the first representative body ever assembled on the American continent. From the first, the representatives began to assert their rights." History has shown that this initial taste of representation only increased the colonist's desire for independence.
The underlying sentiment of emotion and resentment over the decades of being taxed by the British Parliament without appropriate representation and unfair tariffs finally boiled over on December 16, 1773 at the "Boston Tea Party" which is generally considered to be one of the catalysts for the American Revolution. In the span of over one hundred fifty years, from that first elected assembly to the American Revolution, the Patriot Party grew stronger; though not to the point of ever being a majority prior to the war, as noted by John Adams who stated: "One third are Patriots, one third are Loyalists and the rest don't give a damn one way or the other." Though the patriots were initially in the minority, they were clearly a well funded passionate minority that by the end of the war had by most accounts, converted many and become the majority.
In this "Era of Enlightenment (~1660 to 1789)," rational thought and methodical observation by individuals became the primary basis of principles of authority while replacing the "dark ignorance and blind belief that characterized the past" with a reduction in the powers of the church. The word "patriot" was not used as we know it today as a "nationalist," it meant that it did not demand that you stand behind your country absolutely and that an individual could be a patriot and still revolt against the actions of the King. This is the reason why the colonists called themselves patriots at this time in history. A patriot's principles are clear and straight forward. Today the meaning of patriots and nationalists are similar and the word "Patriot" creates a vision of a great American symbol.