In 1816 one of our earliest naval heroes, Commodore Stephen Decatur, offered the following toast: “Our country, in her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right, but our country, right or wrong.”
It is unfortunate that the sentiment reflected in this long ago toast no longer appears to be widely accepted. Although I first read of the toast decades ago in a baby boomer era history book, I question whether many peopleunder age 40 have heard of Stephen Decatur, never mind the toast. If the toast is remembered at all, it is seen not as a memorable patriotic statement but as an example of rampant jingoism, excessive chauvinism and an unenlightened world view, which ignores the alleged shortcomings of the United States. Of course patriotism is more than stirring toasts or speeches.
Instilled through education, experience, and the examples of our parents, teachers and leaders, it is different from the affinity we feel to our race, ethnic group, religion or political philosophy. Patriotism is devotion to one’s country — an acknowledgment of national identity and pride; and it is easy to be proud to be an American.
Those who decry the sentiment are often dismissive of the entire concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that our nation is unique in its history, principles, actions and achievements. Our own president was accused of dismissing the concept when in April 2009, he stated that it was a matter of course that all people tend to think their own nations are unique and exceptional.
In his defense, he has clarified his position since then, stating specifically that he believes in American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism does exist, and our history, our accomplishments, and our collective achievements set us apart from other nations. We are a country blessed with climate, national resources and geographic location. We were uniquely forged as a nation through a revolution fought to secure freedom and liberties and have flourished under a system of government that enabled us to collectively achieve the status of a great power while protecting individual liberties.
A nation of immigrants, we created a cultural environment that encourages people to honor their roots while embracing common ideals and dreams. Since our birth, millions of our citizens have placed themselves in harm’s way to defend our freedoms and way of life, and hundreds of thousands have paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of those ideals.
We lead the world economically, politically, socially, technologically, militarily, in the arts and sciences, and in almost every other attribute that defines a great nation. Our culture is recognized and emulated around the world. Our charity is virtually unlimited, and we continue to serve as a beacon of hope for the poor and oppressed everywhere.
Alongside great accomplishments have been great mistakes. Patriotism does not mean we ignore or deny errors made in the past or ongoing today. Patriotism does mean that we study, learn and correct those mistakes without using them to minimize or nullify the magnificent accomplishments we have achieved over the past 239 years — and are continuing to achieve today.
Perhaps we can agree that a variation of the famous Decatur toast, made by then Secretary of the Interior Carl Shurtz a half-century later, provides a better definition of patriotism: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Happy Birthday, America, and may you continue to have sons and daughters who will make you proud and who unabashedly give thanks that they are Americans.
James Byrne is a former U.S. Army officer and semiretired telecommunications engineering manager. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.