Thursday, April 5, 2012

"My Country Right or Wrong"-What Decatur Actually Said and Why He Said It

The phrase "My country right or wrong" is one of those iconic American quotes that has almost become cliche. Like many iconic phrases, however, it has been often misquoted, taken out of context, and misused.

Commodore Stephen Decatur uttered the phrase in 1816 as a toast during a dinner held here in Norfolk. After sealing the final victory over the Barbary states in late 1815, several port cities held victory celebrations in Decatur's honor. Norfolk politicans/lawyers Littelon Tazwell, John Nivision, and Robert Taylor organized the event. After dinner, servants cleared the table and brought out the wine. Several men stood up to give toasts.

It started off reasonably enough with one person quoting a recently written poem out of Baltimore:

"The Star Spangled Banner-Long May it wave
O'er the Land and Home of the Brave."


However, as the evening rolled on, the toasts became more jingoistic and even delusional. Two in particular went:

"The militia of the United States-They have triumphed over the conquerors of the conqueror of Europe." (No doubt said by Taylor, who served as the local milita commander. However, during the War of 1812, the militiamen frequently broke and ran in fights with British regulars.)
 
"The Crescent-Its luster was dimmed even by the twinkling of our STARS." (The "Crescent" refers to the Islamic kingdoms in North Africa.)

It was in this setting that Decatur stood up and stated,
Newspaper account of the dinner
(Click image to enlarge)

"Our country-In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong."

In this context, Decatur's toast is not a call for undying, blind patriotic devotion to one's country as the expression is often used in modern political discourse. It is rather a prayer for guidance, wisdom, and temperance in foreign relations.

Even though the toast was non-partisan and neutral in nature, it was not universally well-received. Federalists denounced Decatur for being a stooge for the Democratic-Republican party (the sponsors of the dinner), as they believed no member of the Armed Forces should speak at a political function. They partially excused the commodore by claiming he must have being drinking too much wine at the time. Some believed that members of America's Armed Forces should not boast about their military victories at any public event.

Nonetheless, the toast raised Decatur's public profile to new heights. Newspaper editors across the nation, whether they agreed with the commodore or not, reprinted the quote. Some even mention that Decatur would make a good President.

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