Memorial Day began in the years following the Civil War to honor the dead on both sides of the conflict. Rooted in ancient commemorations of war dead that included bringing offerings to the graves of fallen warriors, the event was originally called Decoration Day because of efforts to clean gravestones and decorate graves with flowers. Like so many things associated with a war often called “the Second American Revolution,” Memorial Day has themes of death and rebirth that align with Abraham Lincoln’s charge that we “never forget what they did here” as the nation warred so there could be “a new birth of freedom.”
In 2013, there are those who ask if the nation is locked in perpetual warfare. War, the cruelest act that humans perform, is close to my mind — many members of my family are military or retired military who experienced warfare first hand. No matter what their personal politics, all say that if the United States fights a war it had better do so with the understanding that young men and women die so a nation called the United States of America will live. We have a way of life, a culture of rights and opportunities, that marks us as an exceptional nation in the scope of world history. If the nation lives, we keep that culture. If it the nation is diminished or dies, another, less favorable political culture replaces the one we cherish. It is that simple.
The Declaration of Independence recognized that idea. The American Revolution had been a shooting war for more than a year. But the Declaration made clear that liberty, equality of political rights, equality of economic opportunity, and personal freedom were worth the fight. Too often, professionals in both history and education present American history as an unremitting story of oppression. The revolution in the writing of history that forced the craft to examine marginalized people undoubtedly improved scholarship and told stories about our past that had gone unnoticed or forgotten. However, in an effort to avoid the pitfalls of excessive American exceptionalism many professional historians have gone too far in the other direction, producing exceptionalism of another kind: We are so bad, so very bad, and there is little worth acknowledging in the traditional story of American liberty. I humbly suggest that this approach is no longer useful to the craft of history. It is exhausted; it tells us nothing new; it has lost its critical edge.
Besides, those traditional ideas in the Declaration have often been the source of our survival as a nation, even a civilization. For reasons other than a grateful sense of patriotism, I am glad the men at Valley Forge and Saratoga, Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy Beach and Iwo Jima, the A Shau Valley and Da Nang did not choose to see the history of this nation in the same way many professors and social studies teachers do. Belief in the liberty and freedom described in the Declaration sustained many who fought for this nation’s survival when there was little else to trust in. When the British sent the largest invasion fleet in their history to put down the American Revolution– so large it was only dwarfed 170 years later by D-Day –Congress spent two days revising the draft of the Declaration. George Washington ordered the Declaration read to his troops. “Wars, it understood, were not won by ships and sailors and arms alone. Words, too, had the power to serve victory,” wrote one historian about their actions. There must be something good and worthy in that fact of American history. That fact is worth remembering along with those who gave the last, full measure of their devotion.