The Real Story of "My Country, Right or Wrong"

Quotations, particularly quotations with political content, often seem to end up
misrepresented and mangled, their meaning twisted if not completely reversed. Consider only 'The business of America is business', 'War is politics carried on by other means', or 'Truth is the first casualty of war.'


Usually such misquotes are the product of long years and short memories. But cases do exist where phrases have been deliberately altered to fit one or another political—ideological cause. (When was the last time you heard the second part of the Establishment Clause?) One example in particular has always stuck with me: 'My country, right or wrong.'


I grew up with that line. It was a product of the 60s, the age of anti—patriotism. That phrase came to represent everything the Left hated about the patriotic impulse. Whenever anyone revealed a shred of respect for the country, belief in its ideals, or faith in its future, that line was sure to follow. Always spoken with a sneer, the ultimate putdown, unanswerable and final: 'My country, right or wrong.'


The original words were quite a bit different, with a much more subtle strain of meaning. They were first spoken by Stephen Decatur, a man of the country's dawn, a figure who has slipped into that twilight that occasionally overtakes democratic heroes. Decatur was one of the fathers of the U.S. Navy. He was born in Maryland in 1779, when independence was still at issue, and joined the Navy as a midshipman shortly after its reestablishment in 1798.


American merchant ships had long been the prey of the Barbary pirates — the 'navies' of the petty states along the North African littoral, nominally under the control of the Ottomans but practically governed by the biggest thief in town. Dispatched to challenge the pirate kingdoms, the infant U.S. Navy was less than successful. In December 1803 the frigate U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground and was captured, its crew held for ransom, the ship itself towed into Tripoli harbor. The frigate was a dramatic addition to the strength of the pirate fleet, increasing its threat level to an intolerable degree. So on the night of February 16, 1804, Decatur sailed the Intrepid, an Arab vessel he had captured only months before, into Tripoli under the cover of darkness. Setting the Philadelphia ablaze, Decatur and his men attacked the Arab crewmen to assure that the ship burned to the waterline. They then escaped to the open sea from under the guns of the harbor's fort.


The exploit made Decatur a household name. Lord Nelson, himself at the height of his own renown, called it  'the most bold and daring act of the age'. Decatur was promoted, becoming at twenty—five the youngest captain in the Navy.


After war broke out between the U.S. and Great Britain, Decatur, commanding the United States, captured the British frigate Macedonia in October 1812. Most of the U.S. fleet spent the war under blockade, but in 1815, Decatur broke out with the frigate President. A day out of port, he sighted a British squadron, which gave pursuit. Decatur crippled the Endymion, but was badly damaged and forced to surrender to the remaining British ships. He passed the war's remaining months in the West Indies.


Shortly after returning to the U.S., he again set sail for North Africa, commanding a squadron of nine ships, with the mission of ending Barbary state piracy once and for all. In the Mediterranean he captured the Algerian flagship Mashouda along with an accompanying brig, then leveraged the victory to gain a favorable treaty from the Dey of Algiers. Similar submissions followed from Tripoli and Tunis.


On returning home in April 1816, he was feted as the Conqueror of Araby. It was at one such banquet that he raised his glass and spoke the words,

'Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.'

That sounds very little like what I grew up hearing. It's a warrior's toast, direct and unembellished, but it has a lot to say to any citizen. There's that qualifying phrase — 'may she always be in the right', that succeeds in taking any sting out of the concluding words. In truth, there's nothing at all of belligerence in this quotation. Nothing of war, or jingoism, or national superiority. It's a statement about ideals, about what our country should be, and what we have to do to make her so.


A few years earlier, Edmund Burke had written, 'To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.' That's exactly what Decatur, in the way of a sailor, was also saying. 


Decatur's story ended sadly. In 1820, he was challenged by James Barron in relation to a court—martial proceeding involving Barron's conduct during the Chesapeake incident of 1807. Mortally wounded in the duel that followed, he died on March 22, 1820. His wife Susan insisted until her death (she lived on until the Civil War) that her husband was the victim of a conspiracy, and unanswered questions concerning the shooting  remain to this day. (A number of these are discussed  in Phillip McFarland's Sea Dangers.)


But he lives on, as great sailors do. There has always been a U.S. Navy warship named Decatur. The current vessel is an Arleigh Burke—class guided—missile destroyer, DDG—73. On December 15, 2003, the Decatur seized a 40—foot dhow near the Strait of Hormuz after discovering two tons of narcotics linked to an al—Qaeda smuggling operation. The drugs had an estimated street value of eight to ten million dollars. That would have gone a long way in the hands of a Zarqawi.


What better evidence of the clear connection between our time and Decatur's? We have more in common than many of the eras in between. He would understand our epoch, its dilemmas and choices and agonies, much more clearly than many eras closer to his own day. Decatur is a man for our time, and his words are very much words for our time. We'll often have reason to repeat them in years to come — repeat them in full and understand them in full. But for now, it'll be enough to simply contemplate that part that was forgotten for so many years: 'Our country... may she always be in the right.'


J.R. Dunn is a frequent contributor.

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