The Necessity of Memorial Day

Most of our national holidays have some connection with the Civil War. Memorial Day has the most direct relationship, as an expression of national unity between North and South. The remembrance reminds us that a nation cannot be reduced to an army nor to a marketplace. Plato in the Republic and human experience show how the political community embraces those necessary purposes and others beyond them, which fulfill the higher purposes of life. As individuals and as nations we live for those higher purposes.

On the eve of the Civil War Abraham Lincoln plead with the Southern States to renounce secession and remain in the Union. He concluded his First Inaugural with these haunting lines:

I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle–field, and patriot grave, to every living” heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

The Gettysburg Address evokes these musical chords in the great themes of western civilization—reason and revelation, the Declaration of Independence and the 90th Psalm (the source of the “four score” of Lincoln’s poem). America is part of that heritage of science and faith and relives those experiences within itself.

Americans are not just those who find themselves thrown together in temporary coalitions on an issue of the day; they are also bound over generations by inheritance and posterity. Only such a people would think wisdom might reside in the past, to be called forth for the present. Only such a culture could take originalist jurisprudence with full seriousness. Only such citizens would understand the existential meaning of granting citizenship. When we have memories we feel gratitude, realize our obligations, and recognize how to exercise our rights. We remember how to be a free people.