There will be – and have been – many articles in the press this weekend concerning Memorial Day, and the debt each of us owes the now silent multitude who gave their lives for our nation. Some died earning its freedom, others defending her from other nations, and others defending us from ourselves. Our history is short in comparison to that of other nations, and we have been extremely blessed not to have had many wars fought on our soil. There should be more to honoring the sacrifice of these individuals, however, than simply a day and a few monuments.
At the time that our nation was founded, the idea that a person could speak out against a government in power without being charged with treason was novel. People reveled in their freedom, writing pamphlets in the manner of Thomas Paine, publishing papers, and hammering broadsides to trees. Schooling was not only a privilege, it was something in which every person strongly believed. Not having enough education to read the Bible, and enough arithmetic to insure that the individual would not be cheated was considered a sign that the person was stupid, incapable of learning. Political campaigns were as heated as anything we see today. The voters discussed issues, opinions and, at times, morality. After the election, however, the people of the nation truly lived by its motto, “out of many, one” and threw their support behind their leaders.
The American Civil War was one of the few times that we have, as a nation, allowed opinions to divide us, and to divide us so deeply that the result was violence. Even through the bitterness of that war, however, we were in many ways still a nation. The verbal exchanges between the lines showed that the men involved in the fighting knew they were fighting brothers. It took decades to heal the wounds we inflicted on ourselves, both in the war and the reconstruction, but the scars are finally starting to fade. From that time until the activism of the 1970s, our internal disagreements were largely nonviolent and ended in the public backing of those in office.
We are very distant from our revolutionary forebears. We no longer consider a two hole outdoor facility a luxury, nor is homespun the stuff of which our clothing is created. Some of the ways that we have distanced ourselves from them, however, are not as good. Many in our society do not consider education important. While of an age to have crossed the stage with the other graduates Friday night, their children were not present, because they do not attend school. Their parents are willing to pay fines and face jail time rather than force the issue with a child. We no longer give schools the authority to enforce the rules needed to create an atmosphere of learning; instead, we criticize the little things, allowing children to wander through the process, often more ignorant than their counterparts 200 years ago.
We no longer take the time to know what is doing on in our nation. In many ways, we have become selfish. We no longer vote and encourage legislation and policies that are in the best interest of the nation; rather, we place the emphasis on what we think will benefit us personally. We expect government to take care of us in many ways, relying on it for our retirement plans, the care of our elderly family members and our disabled, and to get us through hard times when disaster strikes. By asking for all these things, we increase the size of government, then complain bitterly when the cost of it increases.
Abraham Lincoln’s first Inaugural Address included the following “Though passion may have strained, it must not bread our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Those whose sacrifices we honor today certainly made decisions that were not in their personal best interests. Their “bonds of affection” to their nation stretches across oceans and continents.
It is time for us to honor these sacrifices with more than words, a day off work and school, and a shopping extravaganza. This is more than the unofficial first day of summer. Memorial Day is a call for each of us to remember that our nation is only as strong as its citizens want it to be. IF we cannot put regionalism, self interest, and politics aside in the best interest of our nation, we are doomed to mediocrity or worse.
It is time to allow the “angels of our better nature” to help us make decisions, as we move forward, encouraging decisions that are in the best interest of our community, county, state and nation.
Lisa Peterson is the County Attorney for Nolan County. Comments about this column may be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org .