Monday, October 3, 2011

Is There A Third Option?

"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying,  "My mother, drunk or sober."
         G. K. Chesterton, The Defendant, 1902

Chesterton wasn’t the only one who got it wrong. Stephen Decatur’s toast was not, “My country right or wrong.” The most common form of the quote is, "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!" But that is only the beginning of an interesting story.

The toast was offered at a diner in Commodor Stephen Decatur's honor in April of 1816. This was quoted in Alexander Slidell Mackenzie’s 1849 biography Life of Stephen Decatur . Mackenzie was not shy in editorializing, he added, "May it ever remain the rallying cry of patriotism throughout the land". Life of Stephen Decatur, p. 295.

 However, Respectfully Quoted: A Dictionary of Quotations Requested from the Congressional Research Service, (Washington D.C.: Library of Congress, 1989; Suzy Platt, editor) and notes a contemporary quote from a April 20, 1816 newspaper as, “Our country—In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong.” The second version is supported by two contemporary papers Norfolk Historical

So, we have three quotes, with three different meanings.

Commodore Stephen Decatur served with distinction during the First Barbary War (1801-1805), the War of 1812, and the Second Barbary War (1815). In the First Barbary War, Decatur was part of the four warship force of the fledgling U.S. Navy sent by President Jefferson against the Ottomans at the port of Tripoli. Lieutenant Decatur led the attack to recapture the U.S.S. Philadelphia which had run aground. (Yes, this is the same war where the United States Marines, under Lt. O'Bannon, distinguished themselves by taking the fortress city of Derna on "the shores of Tripoli").

In the Second Barbary War, Decatur forced negotiations with both the Bey of Tunis and the Dey of Algiers to end enforced enslavement of American sailors, the tributes paid and granted the U.S. full shipping rights.