Memorial Day began after the Civil War as a day to decorate the graves of fallen Union soldiers. Across towns in the North, relatives placed flowers on the tombs of fathers, sons and brothers who, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, “gave the last full measure of devotion.” More than 300,000 soldiers died so “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
On this Memorial Day, more than 150 years since the end of the Civil War, we should remember this deeper purpose. We celebrate Memorial Day not to glorify war, or even our nation, but to renew the democracy so many of our ancestors fought to defend. Our democracy has always been imperfect, but we have always improved it by striving to do better. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to remember the past and use it as inspiration for the future.
Speaking at Arlington National Cemetery in 1871, Frederick Douglass, a former slave, reminded listeners “we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause.” That noble cause was the affirmation of freedom in the abolition of slavery and the protection of democracy in a stronger union. Douglass and the first commemorators spoke to a still-divided nation, but they aspired to a higher ideal of democratic unity.
Memorial Day was a day devoted to the freedom and rule of law that so many city boys, rural folk, immigrants and former slaves had defended on killing fields from Antietam and Gettysburg to Vicksburg and Appomattox. The nobility of the war dead came not from their military valor, but from their democratic cause, which distinguished their efforts from those of soldiers in other times and places. Remembering why so many Americans died in the Civil War demanded a renewed devotion to their ideals.
President Woodrow Wilson, the first president from the South since the Civil War, embraced Memorial Day and espoused it as part of his broader effort to renew democracy for all sections of the country. Speaking on May 30, 1914 — on the eve of the First World War, which he condemned and sought to escape — Wilson pointed to the uniqueness of American purpose on the battlefield. “There is no other civil war in history,” Wilson explained, “the stings of which were removed before the men who did the fighting passed from the stage of life.”
The president spoke of a “spiritual re-establishment of the Union” after 1865 that deepened personal freedom and national unity. Wilson advocated a “New Freedom” in place of paternalistic traditions throughout the country. This sentiment animated his calls for self-determination and the breakup of empires abroad.
Fifty years later, Lyndon Johnson, also a proud son of the South, echoed Wilson amidst renewed struggles over the meaning of freedom in America. Speaking on Memorial Day in 1963 as vice president, he recounted how “our nation found its soul in honor on these fields.”
The promise of freedom and equality for all citizens made the Civil War an enduring inspiration for Johnson. “Until justice is blind to color, until education is unaware of race, until opportunity is unconcerned with the color of men’s skins, emancipation will be a proclamation but not a fact. To the extent that the proclamation of emancipation is not fulfilled in fact, to that extent we shall have fallen short of assuring freedom to the free.”
Johnson used Memorial Day to push reluctant Americans to live up to their ideals. He did not speak of the Civil War and subsequent American military battles, but of the democratic purpose behind them. And he did not comment on the difficulties that followed America’s many wars, but on the possibilities they opened to improve the lives of diverse citizens.
Despite his criticism of many Johnson-era programs, Ronald Reagan made a similar connection between Memorial Day and American democracy in the 1980s, saying: “The United States and the freedom for which it stands, the freedom for which they died, must endure and prosper.
Their lives remind us that freedom is not bought cheaply.” Reagan rejected chest-thumping chauvinism for what he called “a measure of wisdom.” “We must be wise enough about ourselves to listen to our allies, to work with them, to build and strengthen the bonds between us.”
American leaders seem short on wisdom these days. Although we have the strongest military in the world, deployed in more regions than any other, Americans appear to have forgotten the purpose behind these deployments. And the same is true for many programs at home — from immigration restrictions to other forms of law enforcement. What kind of world are we trying to create? What values are we trying to defend? And why are we doing so little to stop the recurring school shootings that imperil the most basic freedom — the freedom to learn — for the youngest among us?
Memorial Day should remind us that our power is meaningless, destructive, and even disgusting without a firm connection to our democratic values. Our history is filled with heroes, whom we celebrate, because they defended personal freedom and the rule of law. Our country is great because it has continued to grow as a democracy for new citizens in each generation.
We must return to this history, or we will desecrate the graves we decorate on this solemn day. We must banish our recent hateful immodesty as Americans and remember where it all began, with another “new birth of freedom,” immortalized by Lincoln and those who fell for the cause he so perfectly described: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Jeremi Suri is the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin and the author of “The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Dallas Morning News.
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