My Country, My Country
A Misread Toast from America at War with
Prepared at the request of Peter Tsantes, President of the North American
by John Davis Collins @1997 All Rights Reserved By John F.
"My country, right or wrong," Stephen Decatur's famous toast has been read
for 200 years as an obligation to Americans to fight any war the government
provokes. Has it been correctly read? Or has it been given an incorrect, war
The war with Tripoli is either left untold or retold as if it were short
and decisive clash with a distant, maleficent foreign power. This is overlaid
by an American tendency to speak of the leaders of the early republic as
demigods. Legend building has toyed dangerously with the facts.
Lets see if the real facts provide a more interesting story.
As the architects of Washington City, Pierre L'Enfant and Benjamin
Latrobe, sought to transform the Potomac swamp into an acropolis, the new
Republic was being born into an uncertain world. Britain, under Pitt the
younger at war with Revolutionary France, chuckled at the budding capitol, "a
fitting summer palace" for the troublesome Prince Regent, the future George
IV. Both Revolutionary France and the Ottoman Empire's North African satraps
preyed upon American shipping.
American Independence was supposed to have bought the blessings of peace
and fecundity to North America and freedom from immersion in European
conflicts. Instead, cast off from the protections of the Union Jack, America
found its merchantmen under attack all over the world.
The ink hardly dried on the Treaty of Paris (1783) when the Ottoman
Sultan's North African vassals turned their corsairs against merchantmen
flying the Stars and Stripes in the Mediterranean. Impoverished by civil
strife throughout the Critical Period (1783-1787), the flash fires of border
wars on the frontier with Indians raids and on the sea with the Revolutionary
French, the United States capitulated; sending tribute to the Dey of Tripoli.
The declaration of Senator Pinckey, "Millions for defense, not one cent for
tribute," was empty rhetoric.
Increasing Moslem and French boldness in their attacks on U.S. merchant
shipping and more ambitious financial demands exhausted the United States'
patience. What General Washington had accepted, as matter of political
necessity, John Adams, the second president, would no longer tolerate. Adams
put the country on a footing of war.
John Adams copied the British Sedition Act enacted by Pitt the younger as
a counter-measure to extremist Republican activity and added an American spin
to it. Unassimilated French immigrants were forced to choose between the
American dream at hand and the pipe dream of returning to a restored Royalist
France. Republican, pro French, newspapers were closed.
In the European conflict France invaded the Ottoman province of Egypt
(Aegyptus) and defeated the Marmaluke khedives. French victory was short
lived. By 1800 Napoleon's forces were routed by a British expedition. War
between France and Britain in a pivotal Ottoman province weakened the Ottoman
Empire emboldening the North African satrapies into new predatory actions
against the Americans.
American involvement in a new war between France and Britain seemed
inevitable. However, tensions dissolved when the Emperor Napoleon of France
decided on a brief interlude of peace (1800-1805).
The American general election of 1800 brought the pacifist Thomas
Jefferson to the newly built Executive mansion. Bitterly Adams reflected on
his defeat, "crowds will cheer, philosophers swoon; only practical politicians
will truly savor his shallowness." The Dey of Tripoli tested Jefferson by
Contrary to Adam's dire prophecy, Jefferson accepted the challenge. What
did Jefferson have at hand to fight a war with an established naval power?
In the war for Independence, the regular Continental Navy's principal
claim to laurels or honor was that its principled commanders had steadfastly
refused handsome bribes from Admiral Howe. Most of the effective American
action on the sea was fought by privateers, pirates hired to prey on merchant
shipping. The regular Continental Navy's claim to having sails in the decisive
battle of the Chesapeake has long been regarded skeptically.
In preparing for war with Tripoli, the upstart republic's navy attempted
to use the fast and loose tactics of the War for Independence in formal
conflict. The impressed American merchantmen the US Navy collected in the
Mediterranean could not maintain a blockade of Tripoli. The first three years
of war were a resounding failure. An American ditty of the time went, "May I
ever be protected by foundering Gunboat Number 4."
While war with Tripoli dissolved into a dark farce of inaction, Jefferson,
in 1803, purchased the entire Louisiana territory from Napoleon, annexing to
the republic a non-saxon culture and more troublesome French. Aaron Burr,
Jefferson's treacherous Vice President, did more than flirt with intrigue and
rebellion in the newly acquired purchase.
Yet Jefferson was not distracted from the Tripolitian war for long.
In 1804, Jefferson refitted the American Navy with four new ships and sent
them asail against the Ottoman port of Tripoli. The bold move had implicit
British support; the small American fleet passed unchallenged though Gibraltar
and appeared off Tripoli with an ultimatum. One can only imagine what General
Charles O'Hara, whose dignity in conducting the surrender ceremony at Yorktown
had one him the governorship of Gibraltar, the second most important post in
the Empire, might have said in disgust at Pitt's decision to allow the
Americans to pass.
The odds were by no means as stacked against the Americans as the wealth
and potential power of the Ottoman Empire could have made them. Against the
small American fleet, the Turk had many more ships, outdated xebecs and
corsairs effective against merchantmen, but not against a modern navy. Both
fleets were comprised of sailors from many nations. The American Navy took
volunteers who accepted citizenship as part of the payment; the Turks
impressed slaves from among the many subjects of the Ottoman's Empire. No
nation can truly survive if it relies on its subjects to fight. An Austrian
officer commented, "the Turk has learned nothing new since his days of glory."
The American fleet pounded the citadel of Tripoli.
The American Counsel in Tripoli, William Eaton, correctly gauged French
complicity with the Dey of Tripoli. After publicly flogging the French
Ambassador, Eaton departed for the desert where he joined Lt. O'Bannon's
Marines detached from the U.S. fleet. In the impressed Navies of the time,
Marines protected the Captain from the crew. The U.S. Navy saw no need; as its
sailors were free men under arms, marines could be used to extract a price
from the enemy.
Lt. O'Bannon and Eaton raised a small army of Greeks and Arabs to march on
the fortress city of Derna, guarding the land approach to Tripoli.
In the Tripolitian harbor, the U.S. bombardment did not proceed smoothly.
The U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground and was captured by the Moslems who now
had a modern ship to turn against the Americans.
a format portrait
Lt. Stephen Decatur, American born of Greek extraction, set out to recover
the Philadelphia. An explosion of the Philadelphia's magazine ended the sortee
in a technical failure, but the resulting firestorm burnt a part of the
Turkish fleet to the water line. British Admiral Lord Nelson lauded the raid
as the "most daring of its time."
In a second raid, the USS Intrepid on a night sortee in the Tripolitan
harbor was exploded by a Turkish counterattack. The explosion however finished
off the Turks. In a sense, American success in the harbor was the triumph of
In March of 1805, the motley army recruited by William Eaton and Lt.
O'Bannon took the fortress city of Derna. As the Stars and Stripes floated
aloft over a foreign city for the first time, the land approach to the
Tripolitian harbour lay in American hands. Tripoli lay at their feet. The
entire empire of the Ottomans' quaked.
The Dey of Tripoli offered peace on status quo ante: resumption of the
tribute. To the consternation of the victorious U.S. Navy and their ebullient
Greek allies, President Jefferson accepted. William Eaton resigning in protest
upbraided Jefferson, "Send a slave in my place."
The military was less wrathful to the President. Lt. Stephen Decatur
offered a conciliatory toast to the reversal of fortune, "In matters of
foreign affairs, my country may she ever be right, but right or wrong, my
country, my country." This toast remains the watchword of the Armed Forces as
recognition of paramount civilian authority, not as a prayer for war, but an
assent to a political resolution, a decision for peace. It reechoes as a voice
of reason even today whenever military leaders disagree with the President.
Officially, despite the justifiable disconcertment of Mr. Eaton, Decatur
and O'Bannon came home recognized heroes to a small country anxious to invent
a boastful mythology of a lightening raid against a treacherous enemy and to
down play the more comical aspects of the adventure. That certain important
British figures like Lord Nelson, on his way to fatality and immortality at
Trafalgar later in 1805, chose to applaud the American effort with much
undeserved praise rather than publicly chuckle at it, gave fuel to the legend.
The comments of British leaders were more the kind words of a proud parent
than recognition of a military feat. Despite the individual heroism of Decatur
and the other men of the Intrepid, the Americans, from an objective military
view, the Americans had blundered their way to success. What Briton "Daddy"
thought was still important to his rambunctious teenagers.
What little American commentary on Jefferson's decision to recall the
fleet simply notes that Jefferson tired of European politics. This is an
Shifting sands of Napoleonic age European rivalry between France and
Britain could not have been trusted. In 1805, the little Corporal (Napoleon)
was prepared to renew his war against Britain and her allies. The small
American skirmish in the desert hardly deserves a footnote by comparison to
To continue the war with the North African satrapies, Americans needed
British approval. British Prime Minister Pitt the younger long was a friend to
and admired by both American Federalists and Republicans.
Americans knew to expect no sympathy from any of Pitt's potential
successors nor from the guardian of the gate to the Mediterranean, General
Charles O'Hara, to whom the governorship of Gibraltar along with ceremonial
colonolship of the Cheshire Guards had been granted by the crown for his loyal
service against Americans in the war for Independence.
An opportunity to attack Tripoli came only when the British needed a
counter stroke to prevent a French alliance with the Turk. How much American
success would Britain tolerate?
America walked a tight line between a success inviting Britain's wrath and
one ensnaring the small American fleet now down to two modern ships in
Britain's expansionistic dreams. A secretary of state later explained "we
cannot afford to be the rowboat in the wake of the Britannia."
The census of 1800 proved disappointing to Republican politicians, who had
throughout the war for Independence as all nationalists do, argued that the
population would bloom in freedom. Border wars and epidemics had taken a toll.
The country declined from an estimated 3 million on British withdrawal to 2 ?
million, 17 years later.
Two and a half million people could not fight a war so far away. Avoiding
involvement in distant wars had been the reason Republican politicians offered
for an Independent America and the secession from the British Empire.
Jefferson in breaking off the attack fulfilled the Republican promise.
Continued war presented more than philosophical problems over involvement
in the continuing rivalry between Britain and France. A cabal was brewing in
newly acquired Louisiana. The military governor of Louisiana had expressed
more than a passing interest in Burr's bid for an Independent Western
Republic. Jefferson's immediate problems at home took priority over a conflict
with distant Tripoli.
Jefferson's investment in Louisiana proved sound. The British victory at
Trafalgar later in 1805 broke the French naval power forever, ending the
threat of a French resurgence in North America. Burr's quisling Independent
Western Republic dissolved into mists of the swampy Louisiana bayoux.
The story of the war with the Ottoman Empire is rarely retold accurately
in this country. A misreading of Decatur's famous toast may have dulled
Decatur's image in the American pantheon during the restive years of the
Vietnam War (1964-1974). However, a tidal wave of Greek immigrants have
renewed interest in the famous officer who humbled the mighty Turks. To these
new Americans who have adopted Decatur's country, Decatur was one of the many
Greeks who never turned his back on the enemy, but always preferred peace to
From the war with Tripoli, the United States Navy emerged as an organized
fighting force, but so too did its adjunctive Marine Corps. Lt. O'Bannon's
deeds started a new military tradition for Marines and a new function in land
combat. The Marine Corps remembers this in the Marine hymn and the Marmaluke
sword. Upon graduation from Annapolis or direct commission, each Marine
officer receives a Malamuke sword emblazoned with the legend; "The Shores of