WASHINGTON -- Memorial Day is a peculiarly appropriate holiday for our times. Its origins lie in the Civil War, which resulted from the failure of a deeply polarized political system to settle the question of slavery.
Reading the history of the period leading up to the war is jarring because its political conflicts bear eerie similarities to our own — for the sharp regional differences over how the federal government’s powers should be regarded; for the way in which advocates of slavery relied on “constitutional” claims to justify its survival and spread; for the refusal of pro-slavery forces to accept the need for compromise in the wake of the outcome of the 1860 election; and for the fierce disagreements over how the very words “morality,” “patriotism” and “freedom” should be defined.
Our nation argued over what the Founders really intended and over the Supreme Court’s authority to impose a particular political view — in the case of the Dred Scott decision, it was the pro-slavery view — and to override growing popular opposition to slavery’s expansion. Religious people sundered their ties with each other over the political implications of faith and biblical teachings. And, yes, we struggled over race and racism.
We are not on the verge of a new civil war, and no single issue in our moment matches slavery either in its morally evocative power or as a dividing line splitting the nation into two distinct social systems. But Memorial Day might encourage us to re-engage with the story of the pre-Civil War period (the late David M. Potter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the era, “The Impending Crisis,” has helpfully been reissued) for clues from the past as to how we might understand the present.
The holiday itself and how it was transformed over the years also carry political lessons for us now.
Memorial Day, as veterans are always the first to remind us, is not the same as Veterans’ Day. Memorial Day honors the war dead; Veterans’ Day honors all vets. Memorial Day started as Decoration Day on May 5, 1868, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic, the vast and politically influential organization of Union veterans. The idea was to decorate the graves of the Union dead with flowers. Students of the holiday believe that Gen. John A. Logan, the commander in chief of the GAR (and the Republican vice presidential nominee in 1884), eventually set May 30 as its date because that would be when flowers were in bloom across the country.
The South, of course, saluted the Confederate war dead. A group of women in Columbus, Miss., for example, decorated the graves of the Southern dead at the Battle of Shiloh on April 25, 1866. This and other comparable ceremonies led to a vigorous competition over where the holiday originated.
It was only after World War I that Memorial Day was established as a holiday commemorating the fallen in all American wars. And it was not until 1966 that President Lyndon Johnson declared Waterloo, N.Y., as the official birthplace of Memorial Day, although that has not stopped the disputes over where it began.
Seen one way, the Memorial Day story traces a heartening journey: A nation whose Civil War took the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans (more than 2 percent of the U.S. population then) could and did gradually come back together. A holiday that was initially a remembrance of those who died because the nation was so riven is now a unifying anniversary whose origins are largely forgotten.
Marking Memorial Day, moreover, may now be more of a moral imperative than it ever was. As a nation, we rely entirely on a military made up of volunteers. We are calling on a very small percentage of our fellow citizens to risk and give their lives on behalf of us all. We should recognize how much we have asked of so few, particularly in the years since 2001.
But it would be a mistake to ignore the roots of Memorial Day in our Civil War. Memorial Day is a call to political responsibility, even more so in some ways than the Fourth of July. The graves that Logan asked his contemporaries to decorate were a reminder that politics can have dire consequences. Distorting political reality (the pro-secession forces, for example, wrongly insisting that the resolutely moderate Abraham Lincoln was a radical) makes resolving differences impossible. As we honor our war dead, let us pause to consider how we are discharging our obligations to their legacy.
E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post (firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne).