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Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881
By George Holbert Tucker

Chapter 29

Decatur Drinks a Famous Toast

Time-honored tradition, sanctioned by all of the standard books of quotations on the market, says that when Commodore Stephen Decatur lifted his glass at a testimonial dinner given in his honor in Norfolk on April 4, 1816, he said: "Our Country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, but our country right or wrong."

But that is not what Decatur said, according to the two contemporary Norfolk newspaper accounts of the affair that have been preserved. The first of these is in the American Beacon (a daily) in its issue of the day after the banquet. The second is in the Norfolk Gazette & Public Ledger (a triweekly) that appeared two days after the affair.

Both reported that when Decatur's time came to propose a toast, he lifted his glass and said: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right, and always successful, right or wrong."

Decatur was at the zenith of his distinguished naval career when he proposed the toast. The American naval hero of the hour, he had just returned to the United States as the commanding officer of a squadron that had successfully settled the Mediterranean maritime troubles that had plagued American commerce for two decades. Everywhere the thirty-seven-year-old hero went he was lionized, and he remained the naval darling of the nation until his tragic death in the famous duel in 1820 with Commodore James Barron.

On April 4, 1816, the day Decatur was wined and dined in Norfolk, he was treated as the hero of the hour.

Under the head of "Tribute to Valour and Patriotism," the American Beacon of April 5, 1816, said: "Yesterday our citizens testified to Commodore Stephen Decatur, by a Public Dinner, the exalted sense they entertain of his galantry and public services."

The "neat and plentiful dinner," well supplied with wines and liquors, was provided by Matthew Glenn of the Exchange Hotel on Main Street and was served in the assembly room of the establishment.

A company of one hundred and twenty "officers of the Navy and Army of this station" and the "most representative citizens of this borough" sat down to the table at 5 p.m. John Nivison, a well known Norfolk attorney, presided. He was assisted by his son-in-law, Littleton Waller Tazewell, also a prominent member of the Norfolk bar.

According to the Beacon, "the utmost cordiality and harmony prevailed," and after the meal was over, eighteen prepared toasts were drunk. After the glasses had clinked over the last one, Decatur was invited to propose a toast. It was then that he responded with the salute to his country that has been misquoted for so many years.

As a final gesture, the guests sang a two-verse song written for the occasion by a citizen of Petersburg. The tune used was "To Anacreon in Heaven," the same melody Francis Scott Key used for the musical setting of "The Star Spangled Banner."

The second verse paid particular tribute to Decatur:

"Algiers' haughty Dey, in the height of his pride,
From American freemen a tribute demanded;
Columbia's brave freemen the tribute denied,
And his Corsairs to seize our bold tars was commanded.
Their streamers wave high,
For Decatur draws nigh,
His name strikes like lightning -- in terror they fly --
Thrice welcome our hero, returned from afar.
Where the proud crescent falls to the American Star."

Chapter 30
The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

Norfolk Highlights 1584 - 1881

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