On May 30, 1884, less than twenty years after the end of the Civil War, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Civil War veteran and future Supreme Court Justice, delivered a Memorial Day address in Keane, New Hampshire. The speech, titled "In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire," was given before John Sedgwick Post No. 4, Grand Army of the Republic, in a white painted town hall on the village common.
As we remember those who have served – and especially those who have paid the ultimate price, what Lincoln at Gettysburg called "the last full measure of devotion" – it is worth contemplating Holmes's address, and particularly the beautiful ending:
"Such hearts--ah me, how many!--were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year--in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life--there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier's grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march--honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.
But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death--of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will."
With all our differences and diversity – including our differences of opinion on the great issues of the day – surely we Americans should be united on this day, and every day, in honoring and remembering those who have served, and still do, to defend our freedom.
While Lincoln at Gettysburg spoke at a particular time in a particular place, and on hallowed ground, his words transcend time and place. To me, recalling the ending of his Gettysburg Address has always seemed especially fitting on Memorial Day:
"We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
Here at the Free State Foundation, we are committed to free market, limited government, and rule of law principles. Whatever your own beliefs, as we remember and commemorate, best wishes to you for a safe and contemplative Memorial Day!
PS – In the past week, several long-time readers of this space have asked me for past Memorial Day messages. Here they are: