My country, both right and wrong


The American naval hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, like to offer the following after-dinner toast in the late 1810s.

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

The immigrant newspaper publisher, Carl Schurz, founder of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, offered this toast in 1872.

My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.

The worst mistake an individual, or a community, can make about themselves is to think they are always right and never wrong.   The second worst mistake an individual, or community, can make is to think they are always wrong and never right.

I love my country, I love my family and I love myself, but I don’t make the mistake of thinking my country, my family or myself are perfect.

The great danger of teaching children that the USA (or any other country) is always in the right, and never in the wrong, is that, when they find out this is not so, they go to the opposite extreme and reject everything about their heritage.

I love my country not because it is perfect, but because it is my country.

The United States is an exceptional[1] nation because our basis of unity consists of a set of ideals, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, and a set of laws, as laid down in our Constitution.   The Constitution is the more important of the two.  The oaths of loyalty sworn by new citizens, the military and the President are to the Constitution.

But the Constitution and the Declaration did not come out of nowhere.  They are part of the heritage of British liberty under law, which is part of the heritage of Western civilization, which is part of the heritage of the whole human race, which is part of the cosmic scheme of things.

I don’t recall who it was that asked, if you don’t love your country, which you have seen, how you can love humanity, which you have not seen?  That’s how I think of patriotism.


[1] Exceptional means distinctive or unusual, not (necessarily) superior.

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3 Responses to “My country, both right and wrong”

  1. katherinejlegry Says:

    I’ve been reading and appreciating your writing for a short while now and you’re “right” but it turns out so are the “extreme” reactions too. On the 4th of July I was investigating what people were writing about and I agreed with your assessment that we each have to live in our time. Our founders should be respected for what they could progress and in particular separation between church and state. As I read the voices of black millennial people and native american college age people my feeling is that they don’t know how to embrace the U.S. heritage as they don’t see it (white patriarchal society) recognizing their history, after being robbed of land and people and culture. They are not just rejecting heritage. They see their ancestry and modern cultures taken over and profited on as well as being slandered and degraded, incarcerated, raped and murdered by the corporations, institutions, and society that they are to be grateful for. As you also had articles by and about Ta Nehisi Coates, I don’t have to go too far into the details, although he might not be the one representing the majority of young voices on the matter. His articles are too long for young attention spans.
    As a white “feminist” (although I don’t really label myself), I am often rejected because some early suffragists were for the women’s vote but still against black people voting, and so feminism has been rejected by many women of color as a viable way to unify. It is frustrating to be lumped in with the ignorance of a time and be unable to build on what was effective, or given room to correct or grow with people today. But I understand it all the same. I understand the anger, distrust, and disillusionment. Slavery isn’t something we can expect forgiveness for. I’d like to say it ended with President Lincoln, but outsourcing jobs has proven this untrue.
    Sometimes it feels like we are bailing water in a sinking ship and we don’t have a captain… The checks and balances are not in place.
    I truly value your voice and the work your putting into enlightening people of the whole picture. It gives me hope.


    • philebersole Says:

      I don’t have any quarrel with young people or people of color who are embittered by the difference between the American ideal and the American reality.

      Their day to day experience of American life is different from that of a college-educated, middle-class, elderly retired white man with good insurance, such as myself.

      The USA is in complete retreat from the civil rights era. Republican politicians are making a concerted effort to make voting more difficult for black people, poor people and young people.

      The “war on drugs” is directed against poor young black men, who go to prison for offenses that are winked it in affluent young white men. When they get out of prison, they are, as convicted felons, legitimate targets for the kind of discrimination that would be illegal if it were done overtly on the basis of race.

      My quarrel is rather with certain acquaintances in my own social circle who (I exaggerate) with knowing smiles, point out the hypocrisies and moral failures of idealists, reformers and national heroes, and who (I exaggerate again) make themselves bullet-proof against similar accusations by means of hip jaded cynicism.


      • katherinejlegry Says:

        Oh… well I am glad I wrote you as your response is truer still and illuminating. Point taken, sir. Please carry on. You do good work. Thanks for the link to the further reading. I find myself in these discussions in order to debunk my own hypocrisy as much as I’m making assertions. Your blog is so balanced I am refreshed.


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