Proud American

Why this speech from the first Memorial Day still resonates today

Peter Lillback

Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, began shortly after the Civil War.  General John A. Logan, a leader of Northern veterans, called for a nationwide day of remembrance, and May 30, 1868 was designated “for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”

James Garfield, a politician and former Union general, spoke on the first Decoration Day at Arlington National Cemetery. Almost 150 years later, his message about the cost of our liberty, the sanctity of our institutions and the importance of national unity seems intended for our divisive times.

Garfield was not only a war hero and statesman, but a minister, college president and professor who had taught Greek, Latin and literature.  His oratorical skills have long been forgotten, but his words commemorating the fallen should not be lost.

He asserted that they died in defense of “the old American principle that all owe due submission and obedience to the lawfully expressed will of the majority. This is not one of the doctrines of our political system -- it is the system itself. It is our political firmament, in which all other truths are set, as stars in Heaven. … Its overthrow would have brought such ruin as might follow in the physical universe, if the power of gravitation were destroyed.” 

According to Garfield, the Civil War began in a dispute over the results of an election -- an insight worth remembering as we approach Memorial Day 2017.

“I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of [their] great deeds.”

To foster a spirit of national unity, we would do well to remember Garfield's thoughts on the abiding value of America's heroes:  “I love to believe that no heroic sacrifice is ever lost; that the characters of men are molded and inspired by what their fathers have done; that treasured up in American souls are all the unconscious influences of [their] great deeds.”

Following his speech, 5,000 people decorated the graves of the 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers buried at Arlington. At the time, Garfield was a congressman from Ohio.  He would eventually become the 20th president and be assassinated only six months after his election in 1881.

Decoration Day gradually became known as Memorial Day. With the advent of World War I, it was changed to commemorate American military personnel who died in all wars. It became a federal holiday in 1971.

This year, let’s view Memorial Day not simply as an opportunity for a long weekend but as an occasion for reflection on the costliness of liberty. Let’s remember the fallen and what was said at the first Decoration Day.

As Garfield urged, let us “consider this silent assembly of the dead. … [Their] voices … will forever fill the land like holy benedictions.… Here … let them rest, asleep on the Nation’s heart, entombed in the Nation’s love!”

But while they sleep in our nation's love, let us remain awake, for eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

Dr. Peter A. Lillback is the president of The Providence Forum, an organization devoted to recognizing the role of faith and providence in the story of America.