With flowers in their hands and sadness in their hearts, citizens assembled for Memorial Day ceremonies at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1894 stood amid the tombs where the nation's dead were sleeping and heard accomplished lawyer/orator William Jennings Bryan tailor his address to Civil War veterans there to honor fallen comrades.
“We who are of the aftermath cannot look upon the flag with the same emotions that thrill you who have followed it as your pillar of cloud by day and your pillar of fire by night,” Bryan acknowledged. “Nor can we appreciate it as you can who have seen it waving in front of reinforcements when succor meant escape from death. Neither can we, standing by these blossom-covered mounds, feel as you have often felt when far away from home and on hostile soil you have laid your companions to rest.”
However, there was something a new generation could do, suggested the man who would later run for president of the United States three times and serve as a prosecutor in the notable 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” concerning the teaching of Darwin's theory of evolution in a Tennessee school.
“We can bring you the welcome assurance that the commemoration of this day will not depart with you,” Bryan promised. “We may neglect the places where the nation's greatest victories have been won, but we cannot forget the Arlingtons which the nation has consecrated with its tears…”
Like so many great orators of a bygone day – such heavy hitters as Abraham Lincoln, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr. and Maine's own General Joshua Chamberlain – Bryan knew how to give a rousing Memorial Day speech.
Read enough of these inspiring texts from the past (Bryan's is from the Wikisource Web site) and a two-part formula for success seems to emerge: First, praise the dead and compliment the living for their patriotism. Second, seize the occasion to rally support for facing those responsibilities which the times impose upon the republic – the “unfinished work” that Lincoln alluded to in his historic Gettysburg Address of 1863.
On patriotism Bryan was masterful: “The officer was a patriot when he gave his ability to his country and risked his name and fame upon the fortunes of war. The private soldier was a patriot when he took his place in the ranks and offered his body as a bulwark to protect the flag. The wife was a patriot when she bade her husband farewell and gathered about her the little brood over which she must exercise both a mother's and a father's care…”
As for civic responsibility, every generation leaves to its successor an unfinished work, Bryan said. “We build upon the foundation which we find already laid, and those who follow us take up the work where we leave off,” he counseled. Civil War soldiers who had fallen 30 years ago had “nobly advanced the work in their day,” for they had succeeded in holding together the Union in its time of greatest peril.
“No greater victory can be won by citizens or soldiers than to transform temporary foes into permanent friends,” Bryan thundered. The truth of that astute observation resounded again after World War II when the Axis powers that once were America's sworn enemies morphed over time into our new best friends.
A good Memorial Day speech should contain the caveat that war must never be the preferred way of doing business.
“The strength of a nation does not lie in forts, nor in navies, nor yet in great standing armies,” Bryan cautioned, “but in happy and contented citizens who are ever ready to protect for themselves and to preserve for posterity the blessings which they enjoy.”
It is for the present generation to so perform the duties of citizenship that, in the words of Lincoln, a government “of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
At the moment, the nation is embroiled in yet another hot war, driving home the point that we must not be deaf to the just demands of the soldier and his dependents. We are a nation grateful for the services rendered by our defenders. Yet, as Bryan noted, that gratitude is not entirely unselfish.
As he saw it, by our remembrance of those who have suffered “we give inspiration to those upon whose valor we must hereafter rely. We must prove ourselves worthy of the sacrifices which have been made, and which may be again required.”
In the never-ending rain and cold of an atrocious spring, another Memorial Day observance upon us, such time-tested sentiments help us keep perspective.
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Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard