Country First–but first…

I see that Republican Party presidential candidate John McCain’s slogan is, as of late August 2008, “Country First.” This is clearly a slight reworking of the old “My country right or wrong.” And that’s a problem.

“My country right or wrong” is a sentiment going back millennia, but it was first recorded for posterity as coming from the mouth of Stephen Decatur, a U.S. naval commander who went to the North African port of Algiers, headquarters of the Barbary States (extending from Tangiers to Tripoli), during the Second Barbary War in 1815. Decatur was to negotiate with the Barbary States for the release of some American sailors who had been captured by pirates and held in slavery, and also for the end of the practice of paying tribute to the Barbary States (European and American states paid the Barbary States annual tributes of gold, arms, and other supplies in return for protection from Barbary pirates).

Decatur’s way of negotiating was to capture two Barbary ships, including their flagship Mashouda, and then blow into Algiers with guns leveled at the city and demand the American prisoners and an end to tribute. It was perhaps the first example of the U.S. using “gunboat diplomacy”. Decatur got everything he wanted. (This is why the Marine Hymn begins with the lines “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli; we will fight our country’s battles in the air, on land, and sea”.)

When Decatur returned to the U.S., as a great hero, he was given a banquet in Norfolk, Virginia, during which he gave a speech that included these words: “Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country!”

This was morphed into “My country right or wrong” so quickly that by 1872, Wisconsin Senator Carl Shurz could refer to the phrase in a Senate speech and know that his audience would understand what it meant. Decatur’s qualifying “may she always be in the right” had been rapidly dropped, leaving “my country right or wrong” as the philosophy of the zealous American patriot. Shurz knew “my country right or wrong” was pulled out to at once kill any questions about American political policies (particularly overseas) and assert the justice of those policies.

But Shurz chose to reiterate the qualifier. His words are far more stirring to the real patriot than Decatur’s:

“‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Shurz elaborated this further in an 1899 speech:

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

The true American patriot knows that what she is proud of is the principles this nation was founded on, and on our willingness and commitment to live up to them. America will go astray, because living up to those principles is hard. But true patriots will use all their energy when America goes astray to get it back on course. The first step, of course, is to admit America has gone wrong, and veered off course.

And that’s exactly what cannot happen if one’s slogan is “Country First.” Because this slogan assumes that anything America does is right, and anyone who questions that is putting something else–fear, weakness, ignorance–ahead of America and its interests. Country can only come first in the sense that we work tirelessly to put our founding principles of equality and justice first. “Principles First” would be a more heartening slogan for the American patriot.

“Country First” assumes somehow that Americans are separate from the country of America, and that we must put our needs and values aside to promote our country. And then maybe the country will check in with us later. That’s not how a democracy works. We are America, and so must put ourselves first, and always vote for the policies that promote the justice and equality we are founded on.

So let’s vote with the slogan “Principles First” as we go to the polls in November, and let’s remember that the most patriotic thing is to set one’s country right when it stumbles, not to enshrine the stumbling as a principle.

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