This is my Memorial Day column with a coronavirus pandemic component, which we’ll get to in a minute.
Reasonable people disagree on the exact origins of what is now called Memorial Day. But most accept that the practice of decorating the graves of Americans who died defending their country began in earnest by women of the South during and following the Civil War.
On May 5, 1868, General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Army of the Republic, was the first to make Memorial Day official. With General Order No. 11, he stated in part that “the 30th day of May 1868 is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country.”
Since then, other than Congress making it a national holiday and changing the date to the last Monday in May, America has honored its fallen heroes from all conflicts in pretty much the manner that General Logan anticipated in the language of his order, whereby “posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”
When America issued its first call to arms – before it was a country with a professional army – the call went to the militia, which was identified as “all able-bodied men.” Calling themselves the “Minutemen,” because they could be ready to fight on a minute’s notice, they were primarily shopkeepers, craftsmen, farmers, etc. Today, we call them small business owners and employees.
From as far away as Scotland, America’s Minutemen were impressive. Writing about the colonies’ quest for independence from England in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith predicted America would prevail against the king thanks to its militia, which “turns from its primary citizen character into a standing army.”
Apparently, there was something very compelling about what those citizens were willing to fight for, even to death. Was it freedom? Perhaps. But freedom comes from God and is found all over the world.
The Founders knew what was so compelling. It was their New World word that represents an ideal they infused into essentially every document, speech, and action. That ideal was – and still is – liberty.
Millions of Americans have since risked their lives to stand up liberty. And post-Revolution, they’ve first taken an oath to “…support and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s a vow to defend American liberty.
Liberty is both an explicit and implicit contract Americans have given to each other for almost two-and-a-half centuries. It’s explicitly codified in the secular red letters of our beloved and immortal Constitution, which guarantees specific rights so precious that a dozen generations have volunteered to defend.
And this contract has been implicitly promulgated with the blood of those whom we honor today – 740,569 of the best of us. And not only today, but every day that we continue to enjoy precious liberty as self-determined citizens and professionals.
On this day in 2020, in the middle of unprecedented circumstances, we should feel even more reverential to these heroes, for the perpetuation of our liberty to allow elected leaders to represent us when hard policy decisions must be made. And for claiming the associated liberty to hold those representatives accountable for their decisions, policies, and behavior, including, if and when necessary, the ability to abridge or rescind that authority.
Giving permission to be governed, with the full comfort in knowing that we can change leadership within an orderly process, is arguably our prime liberty, and the headwater of all others.
This weekend in America, we partake of the quiet enjoyment of liberty that manifests as a national holiday. Amidst pandemic-altered picnics and other gatherings, each one conducted with the unspoken expectation of safety and rights as citizens, we honor those who, as Lincoln so ably prayed in his immortal Gettysburg Address, “…poured out their last full measure of devotion” on behalf of a grateful nation.
Just now, I’m especially grateful for the sacrifice of those who died while standing a post in harm’s way to preserve the contract of liberty we extend to each other. Even during a pandemic.
Write this on a rock … Liberty is so precious in America that, for many – the best of us – it was worth everything.