Born to an immigrant Philadelphia family in 1779, Stephen Decatur became at age twenty-five the youngest man ever to serve as a captain in the U.S. Navy. His intrepid heroism, leadership, and devotion to duty made him a perfect symbol of the aspirations of the growing nation. Leading men to victory in Tripoli, the War of 1812, and the Algerian war of 1815, and coining the phrase Our country, right or wrong, Decature created an enduring legend of bravery, celebrated in poetry, song, paintings, and the naming of dozens of towns - from Georgia to Alabama to Illiis. Decatur's friendships with James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and others made him a rising star in national politics. He and his wife Susan built an elegant home near the White House, which became a center of Washington society. The capital and the nation were shocked when Decatur was killed at the age of forty-one in a duel with a rival navy captain. Although he died prematurely, Decatur played a significant role in the shaping of the nation's identity at a time when the American people were deciding what kind of nation they would become.
ROBERT J. ALLISON is professor of history at Suffolk University and author of The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776-1815.