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My country, right or wrong . . .

Carl Schurz, who became, in the US, an attorney, writer for the New York Tribune, editor-in-chief of the Detroit carl schurzPost, Minister (Ambassador) to Spain under President Lincoln, a Union General in the Civil War, co-editor and co-owner of the Westliche Post in St. Louis, United States Senator from Missouri, 1869-1875 (only 5 years after he became a citizen), Secretary of the Interior under President Hayes, contributor to Harper’s Weekly, editor of the New York Evening Post, was a fugitive from German justice when he arrived in America in 1852.

One of his most famous statements was made while serving as US Senator from Missouri.   In response to this comment of uncritical American hegemony by Senator Decatur of Wisconsin, “My country, right or wrong,” Senator Schurz declared, “The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘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” (2/26/1872).

Later, writing in Harper’s Weekly in an article titled “About Patriotism” (4/16/1898), he wrote, “The man who in times of popular excitement boldly and unflinchingly resists hot-tempered clamor for an unnecessary war, and thus exposes himself to the opprobrious imputation of a lack of patriotism or of courage, to the end of saving his country from a great calamity, is, as to loving and faithfully serving his country, at least as good a patriot as the hero of the most daring feat of arms, and a far better one than those who, with an ostentatious pretense of superior patriotism, cry for war before it is needed, especially if then they let others do the fighting.”  He ended this essay with this warning, “. . . when the rush of events frequently makes the needs of the government especially pressing, that the tribe of unscrupulous speculators bent upon cheating and robbing the public find most fruitful opportunities.  They will always be seen and heard among the noisiest of ‘patriots,’ in whose opinion no preparation is large enough, no action too quick and no measure too far-reaching. In the name of ‘patriotism’ they will insist that all those safeguards in the government machinery which are to prevent fraud and theft be swept away as antiquated ‘red-tapeism’ that obstructs the necessary vigor and promptness of action. In the name of ‘patriotism’ they will seek to foist into places of trust and responsibility patriots of their own stripe to help them in their rascally game. In the name of ‘patriotism’ they will strive to discredit and break down public men who have remained sufficiently cool to guard the public interest, as ‘not patriotic enough.’ And this tribe of sharks and harpies will be lustily aided by the disreputable politicians who discover in the general disturbance a new chance for themselves, and who expect the loudest kind of war patriotism to lift them into popular favor and public place, trusting that everything will be forgiven to the ‘patriot’ who is most vociferous in denouncing the enemy and most fiercely proclaiming that the war must not cease until the last fighting foe has bitten the dust. This is the class of ‘Patriots’ well fitted by old Dr. Samuel Johnson’s robust saying, that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ And those who ‘love their country and mean to serve it faithfully’ must not forget that true patriotism, while in time of war it has to fight the foreign enemy abroad, has to fight with equal vigilance and vigor false patriotism at home. For unless it do so with effect, the range and power of corrupt and degrading influences in our political life will be fearfully enlarged, and the progress of honest, safe and orderly methods of government may be set back for an indefinite period.

Speaking at the Anti-Imperialism Conference in Chicago in October of 1899, he re-used his famous statement when he said, “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 (the American people) 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.'”

Just let this marinade in your mind for a while.



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Filed under German American history, history, immigration, Justice, patriotism, US History