"My Country, Right or Wrong!" The Story Behind This Interesting Phrase

How a Popular Phrase Became a Jingoistic War Cry

My Country, Right or Wrong
Patriotism. Credit: Fran Polito/Getty Images

This phrase, "My Country, Right or Wrong!" may seem like a rambling of a drunk soldier, but this phrase has an interesting history behind it. 

Stephan Decatur: Was He the Original Creator of This Phrase?

The story goes back to early 19th century, when a US naval officer and commodore Stephan Decatur was gaining immense admiration and accolades for his naval expeditions and adventures. Decatur was famous for his daredevil acts of valor, especially for the burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia, which was in the hands of pirates from the Barbary states.

Having captured the ship with just a handful men, Decatur set the ship on fire, and came back victorious without losing a single man in his army. British Admiral Horatio Nelson remarked that this expedition was one of the most bold and daring act of the age. Decatur’s exploits continued further. In April 1816, after his successful mission of signing of the peace treaty with Algeria, Stephan Decatur was welcomed home as a hero. He was honored at a banquet, where he raised his glass for a toast and said:

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

This toast went on to become one of the most famous lines in history. The sheer patriotism, the blind love for motherland, the egotist zeal of a soldier makes this line a great jingoistic punchline. While this statement has always been contested for its highly narcissist undertones, you cannot but help the prevailing sense of patriotism that is the hallmark of a great soldier.

Edmund Burke: The Inspiration Behind the Phrase

One cannot say for sure, but perhaps Stephan Decatur was greatly influenced by Edmund Burke’s writing.

In 1790, Edmund Burke had written a book titled Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which he said,

“To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

Now, we need to understand the social conditions prevailing during Edmund Burke’s time. At this point of time, the French Revolution was in full swing. The 18th century philosopher believed that along with the fall of the French monarchy, there was also a fall of good manners. People had forgotten how to be polite, kind and compassionate, which led to depravity during the French Revolution. In this context, he lamented that the country needs to be lovable, in order for the people to love their own country.

Carl Shurz: The US Senator With a Gift of the Gab

Five decades later, in 1871 a US senator Carl Shurz used the phrase “right or wrong” in one of his famous speeches. Not in the exact same words, but the meaning conveyed was quite similar to that of Decatur’s. Senator Carl Shurz gave a fitting reply to a haranguing Senator Mathew Carpenter, who used the phrase, “My country, right or wrong” to prove his point. In reply, Senator Shurz said,

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

Carl Shurz’s speech was received with a deafening applause from the gallery, and this speech established Carl Shurz as one of the foremost and distinguished orators of the Senate.

Why the Phrase "My Country Right or Wrong!" May Not Be So Right for You

The phrase, “My country right or wrong” has become one of the greatest quotes in American history. It has the ability to fill your heart with patriotic fervor. However, some linguistic experts believe that this phrase could be a bit too potent for an immature patriot. It could foster an imbalanced view of one’s own nation. Misplaced patriotic fervor could sow the seed for self-righteous rebellion or war.

In 1901, British author G. K. Chesterton wrote in his book The Defendant:

“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.'”

He goes on to explain his view: “No doubt if a decent man's mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of gay indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery.”

Chesterton, through the analogy of the ‘drunk mother’ was pointing out to the fact that blind patriotism is not patriotism. Jingoism can only bring about the downfall of the nation, just like false pride bring us to a fall.

English novelist Patrick O'Brian, wrote in his novel Master and Commander:

“But you know as well as I, patriotism is a word; and one that generally comes to mean either my country, right or wrong, which is infamous, or my country is always right, which is imbecile.”

How to Use This Famous Quote, "My Country Right or Wrong!"

In the world we live today, with growing intolerance and terror breeding in every dark alley, one has to tread carefully before using jingoistic phrases purely for rhetoric. While patriotism is a desirable quality in every respectable citizen, we must not forget that the first duty of every global citizen is to set right what is wrong in our country.

If you choose to use this phrase to pepper your speech or talk, use it diligently. Make sure to spark the right kind of patriotic fervor in your audience and help to bring about change in your own country.