My Country

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   July 2, 2024

According to the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (2nd Edition), there are several different versions of the last words of William Pitt (1759-1806), one of the greatest British statesmen. One version is “Oh my country! How I love my country!” Another is “Oh my country! How I leave my country!” A third version quotes the words as “My country! Oh, my country!” 

But there is yet a fourth version, which the Dictionary also includes: 

“I think I could eat one of Bellamy’s veal pies.”

I have been unable to trace Bellamy or his pies, but somehow, they cast a new light upon Love of Country. If they could indeed (allegedly) have been uppermost in the mind of such a great man in his final moments, why do we tend to value so highly whatever we mean by “My Country?” – And just what do we mean, anyway? Is it simply the land within certain borders? Then, what happens when those borders change?

I’m reminded of a story based on the fact that borders do change, often as the result of wars. One border which historically has often been disputed was that between Poland and Russia. When a Boundary Commission set up after World War I informed a certain woman that her house was now definitely in Poland, she exclaimed “Thank God! I don’t think I could have stood another of those Russian winters!”

Then we have Nathan Hale supposedly uttering these last words before he was, in 1776, hanged as a spy by the British: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Quite apart from the heroic nature of these words, it seems significant that the “country” being referred to did not even exist until three months previously, when a group of “colonies” started declaring themselves to be “states,” and “united” for the purposes of separating themselves from their distant “Mother Country.” These concepts are, of course, legal and political fictions. But they have been, and still are, strong enough in men’s minds to justify the mass killing known as war, and the individual sacrifice of lives which war involves.

Nathan Hale was only 21 years old when his life was ended, and he came from a “Country” called Connecticut. He died on an island we now call Manhattan, in the “Country” of New York (a name derived from the city of York in the Country of Great Britain), whose original European settlers came from the Netherlands (which means “Low Countries.”) They called it “New Amsterdam.” But a war was going on, of which the winning side has always deemed Nathan Hale a hero. He was unquestionably a spy – a role which has generally been considered an act of Treason – that is, betrayal of one’s own Country. From the British point of view, Nathan Hale, and indeed all the other “colonists” who were in revolt, were traitors. Those on the other, pro-British, side, were called, and are still referred to, as “Loyalists.”

But there were traitors on both sides. The most notorious of those who betrayed the colonists’ side was Benedict Arnold. He spent his last years in the capital city of the “Mother Country” – London. Once the Revolutionary War was over, however, and a new Country was established and recognized, that Country (now called the United States) produced its own home-grown betrayers. Probably the best-known of these were Julius and Ethel Rosenburg, a couple who were executed in 1953 for passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union, a Country with which, at the time of the alleged crimes, (during World War II) the United States was officially allied.

So, having a Country, or being a Country, is not always a straightforward matter. One determining factor is the issuing of passports. Any place calling itself a Country usually provides its citizens with such a document, if only because other Countries require the showing of one when crossing their borders. And even becoming a Citizen can, in many cases, be a complicated matter, especially if you weren’t born there – or even if you were, if your birthmother got in illegally.

You are probably familiar with the song which begins, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.”

Since, as a child, I went to schools in 3 different Countries – (England, Canada, and the U.S.) – I may perhaps be pardoned, upon learning to sing that song in the third Country, for being under the impression that “Tisof Thee” must be the name of the Country!  


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