Context: Stephen Decatur was the outstanding naval figure in United States history during the century between John Paul Jones and David Farragut. He refused a clerical life after a good education and went to work for a shipbuilding firm. He was aboard the frigate United States, first ship of the U. S. Navy, at the time of her launching. In 1798 he was appointed midshipman and subsequently took part in various minor naval engagements during the French War. Promoted to lieutenant and placed in command of the Enterprise, he fought in the war with Tripoli in 1803–1804. Tripoli had captured the American frigate Philadelphia; Decatur, in a daring exploit, destroyed her in the harbor at Tripoli. In recognition of this act he was promoted to captain and given command of the Constitution. During the War of 1812, as captain of the United States, he captured the British frigate Macedonian. After a year during which the American ports were blockaded, Decatur took command of the frigate President and slipped out of New York harbor during a gale. The next morning he fell in with a squadron of five British vessels; in the running fight which ensued he put the British frigate Endymion out of action, but was unable to escape and was eventually forced to surrender. After the war he was given command of a squadron and sent to the Barbary States to exact reparation for injuries to American commerce and to enforce peace treaties. He carried out the assignment effectively; the United States was now a power to reckon with and Decatur an able instrument. The Bey of Tunis, the Dey of Algiers, and the Bashaw of Tripoli were forced to comply, and the indemnities were paid. On his return to America Decatur was received with great enthusiasm. Alexander Slidell Mackenzie, popular writer of the era who was also a naval officer, describes the receptions given in Decatur's honor and quotes many of the toasts which were offered:
In the succeeding month of April, professional duties called Decatur to Norfolk, the birthplace of Mrs. Decatur, where they had resided several years, and where they were welcomed by a large circle of attached friends. The gentlemen of the place eagerly took advantage of this opportunity to meet him in a general reunion round the social board. Among the appropriate sentiments, which the occasion called forth, were the following; "The Mediterranean! The sea not more of Greek and Roman, than of American glory." "The crescent! Our stars have dimmed its lustre." "National glory! A gem above all price, and worthy every hazard to sustain its splendor." Decatur responded with a sentiment, which has since become memorable; "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong." May it ever remain the rallying cry of patriotism throughout the land; not the least valuable of the legacies left by Decatur to his countrymen.Not long after, Decatur having occasion to pass through Petersburg in Virginia, the moment his presence there became known, he was waited upon by a committee of the citizens, who presented him with an address, expressive of their admiration and thanks for his public services, and requesting him to partake of an entertainment, on the afternoon of the same day, at Poplar Spring. Decatur accepted the invitation, and three hundred persons assembled, on that short notice, to unite in greeting and honoring him.