Living Without a Country: A Fool’s Choice

By Theodore T. Hodge


The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia
January 15, 2005

Growing up an avid reader, one story that left the most profound and indelible impression on my mind was “The Man Without a Country”, by Edward Everett Hale. Although a work of fiction, its intensity never diminished. In the story, “The Man Without A country”, Philip Nolan, a young army officer was banished for life from ever setting foot on the land of his nativity, America. In addition, he was banned from reading any materials (newspaper articles or otherwise) that referred to the country. In short, Philip Nolan was to live the rest of his life aboard US naval vessels as a prisoner; deprived of his natural citizenship, but not allowed to become a citizen of another country; he was not even allowed to even set foot ashore once the ship anchored at a port. He was to live for many, many years simply as “the man without a country”. As far as many were concerned, he did live as such a man until his death; he was buried at sea and to them remained a man without a country.

There are those who argue that a man who publicly denounces his country deserves the harshest treatment including banishment. After all, Philip Nolan was convicted of the serious crime of treason. On the other hand, there are those sentimental individuals who have argued that depriving a man of his natural citizenship is the harshest punishment conceivable and should not be exacted upon any citizen, no matter the gravity of the crime; I count myself in that group. At the time I read the story, up until now, I have considered the punishment of banishment the most cruel and unusual punishment any citizen should be allowed to suffer, no matter the crime.

The inquisitive reader might wonder, what was this poor fellow’s crime? A great treason trial was held at Richmond, Virginia. Along with a host of others, Philip Nolan was charged and tried; he was convicted. Asked by the judge if he wished to say anything, he angrily blurted out, “Damn the United States! I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” The brash young man who uttered those words had no clue what they meant. He had no idea what lay in store for him.

In a twisted kind of way, Nolan’s wish was granted. His ordeal lasted for about fifty-five years; he became and remained the man without a country. As a boy, fifty years seemed an eternity. To live on the seas for fifty-five years! That shook my imagination and the story has lived in my subconscious mind for these many years.

But if the judgment was intended to turn Nolan into a brute or a pathetic creature, it backfired. He repented his mistakes and loved his country even more and remained loyal to her. On his deathbed, an officer took the liberty to bring him up to date about recent and past developments concerning America, the country he never stopped loving. He died a happy man to hear things he had longed to hear so long to no avail. His last words were: “Look in my Bible, Danforth, when I’m gone.” This is what he had written:

“Bury me in the sea; it has been my home, and I love it. But will not some one set up a stone for my memory at Fort Adams or at Orleans, that my disgrace may not be more than I ought to bear? Say on it:”

“In memory of
Philip Nolan,
Lieutenant in the army of the United States.

Who could have shown such grace and dignity when such suffering and dishonor had been imposed on him? Only a noble man, and indeed, a noble man at heart Philip Nolan was. Although they called him the “man without a country”, deep in his heart, he still had and loved his country. Nobody can take your country away from your heart. No amount of cruelty or governmental decrees can accomplish that.

In contemplation, as I often do, I have compared myself to Philip Nolan, the man without a country, and find some unsettling similarities in our lives. Although I did not curse or renounce my country, neither have I been officially banished upon the seas, the past quarter of a century, I too sometimes feel I live as a man without a country. My dear country has been plundered, pillaged and vilified; its people killed and maimed by one unscrupulous group after another, effectively rendering the rest of us unwilling refugees.

But as Philip Nolan, I have remained vigilantly and lovingly attached to the memories of my birth and upbringing. For too long now we have been cheated and robbed. The blood of our dear ones have soaked the scorched Earth. Sometimes, there was no time to say goodbye to the dearly departed. In some cases, we knew not when or where they were buried. The tragedies over the years have been too numerous to catalogue. Yet one must either be a fool or have no sense of patriotism to believe that he has no country. They can never take your country from you, unless you let them. This is what Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish poet wrote many, many years ago in a poem aptly titled “My Native Land”:

Breathes there the man, with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no Minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

I guess it is fair to conclude that he understood the true meaning of patriotism, of belonging to a place once and forever. Although it’s been at least two hundred years since the days of E.E. Hale (the author of The Man Without a Country) and Sir Walter Scott, we still live in their time. We have an obligation to heed the words of the poet and the challenge to dignify our lives and thoughts although prisoners we may be.

Though far removed we may be from Liberia, we must always proudly say about Liberia, “This is my own, my native land”. We cannot afford to live and die in foreign lands without the desire and opportunity to have our people weep for us, honor us and sing our praises. We must go back home; at least we must do so in spirit. We have a country. We are not people without a country.