Memorial Day: Who paid for your liberty?

Jim Blasingame

Reasonable people disagree on the exact origins of what is now called Memorial Day. But most accept that credit for first placing flowers on the graves of fallen American soldiers is owed to “women of the South” who originated the practice during and following the Civil War.

And then, on May 5, 1868, no doubt moved by the initiative of those ladies, General John A. Logan, National Commander of the Army of the Republic, made such recognition official with General Order No. 11. His decree read, in part, “… 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.” And whereby “… posts and comrades will in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.”

It took 103 years for Congress to make “Decoration Day” a national holiday. Turns out it was handy to blend it into the 1971 Uniform Monday Holiday Act. And in addition to renaming it “Memorial Day,” as the law’s title proscribed, it would thereafter be celebrated each year on “the last Monday in May.”

But as is now in abundant evidence, the American spirit isn’t bound by laws – it inspires them. And just as the sweet spirit of those southern ladies inspired General Logan, today it moves us to extend our national gratitude all the way back to when America issued its first call to arms – before it was a country with a professional army.

That 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. You know. Regular folks.

From as far away as Scotland, the spirit of America’s Minutemen was impressive. Writing about the colonies’ quest for independence from England in his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith predicted America would prevail against the king thanks to its militia, which “turns from its primary citizen character into a standing army.”  Regular folks demonstrating something new.

Apparently, there was a very compelling intangible spirit rising up in those “primary citizens” who were willing to fight, even to the death. But what gave rise to this new spirit? Was it freedom? Perhaps. But freedom wasn’t new – it’s found all over the world.

The Founders knew what compelled this spirit. It was their New World word representing an ideal they infused into essentially every document, speech and action. That ideal was – and still is – liberty.

Freedom is from God. Liberty is a contract Americans give to each other, both explicitly and implicitly.

American liberty manifested explicitly in the secular red letters of our beloved and immortal U.S. Constitution (1789). Superseding the Articles of Confederation on the way to becoming our national North Star, The Constitution guaranteed to all Americans specific rights so precious that a dozen American generations of regular folks have been inspired to defend it – with their lives.

For over 250 years, millions of Americans have been called to risk their lives to stand up liberty. And post-Revolution, they’ve raised their right hand and sworn an oath to “… support and defend the Constitution of the United States,” and to defend the liberty of all Americans “… against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” To defend you and me.

And this contract of liberty has been implicitly codified with the blood of those whom we honor today: 1,284,447 of the best of us, killed in action, since 1775. Let’s say that number out loud: one million two hundred eighty four thousand four hundred and forty seven regular folks who stood up in the face of danger and said: “Take me. I’ll go.”

This weekend, like most American holidays, amidst picnics and other gatherings, we’ll partake of the unspoken expectation of safety and rights as citizens. But this particular holiday is dedicated to honor those who made all of that possible.

Those who died while standing a post in harm’s way, to defend and preserve our precious contract of liberty.

Those who felt the American spirit rise up in them to such an extreme level of sacrifice that people they never knew became their beneficiaries.

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.

Write this on a rock ... Memorial Day in America is about something so precious that, for many – the best of us – it was worth everything. Liberty.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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