It is hard for me to think of Memorial Day without Abraham Lincoln injecting himself into the same stream of thought. After all, the first Memorial Days, then called Decoration Days, arose shortly after the Civil War ended to honor the Union’s war dead. The celebration held on May 5, 1866, in Waterloo, New York, is often credited with being the first official Memorial Day commemoration. (Napoleon take note!)
Lincoln can inspire in many different ways. But as I contemplate Memorial Day 2008, with a presidential election at hand, I am reminded that after winning the presidency, Lincoln brought into his War Cabinet all of his principal rivals for the Republican nomination. And then he added a few Democrats for good measure. He did so knowing full well that in every instance these men considered themselves – wrongly, as it turned out – to be his superiors.
Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the tale of Lincoln’s cabinet in her magnificent Team of Rivals. Her book gives us a new appreciation for an aspect of Lincoln’s character rare in politicians of any age, and certainly not always abundantly in evidence today -- the willingness to reach out to political opponents and seek common cause to advance the public’s interest, rather than self-interest.
In arduously melding his “team of rivals” -- a group of disparate personalities with conflicting loyalties -- into an effective governing unit, Lincoln had two paramount goals: first, save the Union, and, second, lead the nation to what he called in Gettysburg “a new birth of freedom,” meaning, in that time and place, emancipation of the slaves.
In our time and place, on this Memorial Day, and on all Memorial Days since the first, are there really any national objectives more paramount than preserving the Union and the individual freedom for which America has come to stand? To be sure, even since the Civil War, here in America such freedom certainly has not always been enjoyed by all, or enjoyed perfectly in the same way. But is there a country other than America that more truly embodies the spirit of the liberty principle for which the Civil War was fought, for which so much blood was shed to preserve the Union? I think not.
At a time when America finds itself still at war, with our brave soldiers fighting and dying abroad, it should not be too much to hope that, in this election year, our political candidates at all levels might adopt a more Lincolnesque posture. Without compromising on matters of fundamental principle, it ought to be possible in difficult times to seek common cause with rivals whose politics differ. Considering the bonds that bind together all Americans, this is especially true on matters relating to protecting America’s security and the freedom which that security enables.
Sandwiched between the crowning of the latest American Idol and the first trip to the beach or first backyard barbeque, it is all too easy to forget Memorial Day’s true meaning. But let’s don’t. This Memorial Day, as each year, let us remember all those who have shed their blood fighting under America’s flag, and, as Lincoln put it at Gettysburg, “resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.”