Memorial Day Roots
5/27/2001 12:00:00 AM - George Will
WASHINGTON--Decoration Day, as it was called when Americans still
vividly remembered what it was they were supposed to be remembering, used
to be May 30, no matter what, never mind the pleasures, commercial and
recreational, of a three- day weekend. An upstate New York town with a
militarily resonant name--Waterloo--began the tradition in 1866, and in
1868 May 30 was designated ``for the purpose of strewing with flowers or
otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their
country during the late rebellion.'' Walter Berns, who is 82 and grew up in
Chicago, remembers Memorial Day (as it was renamed after World War I)
parades up Michigan Avenue still featuring a few Civil War veterans,
national heirlooms as fragile as porcelains.
Berns, a former professor of political philosophy and still very much
a philosopher, at the American Enterprise Institute, has just published a
profound book, ``Making Patriots,'' a timely mediation on a paradox: For
Americans, patriotism is especially vigorous--and peculiarly problematic.
For Spartans, patriotism was not problematic: even the gods were the
city's gods. But with the coming of Christianity, with its distinction
between what should be rendered to Caesar and what to God, patriotism
became complex, and especially so after the Reformation's multiplication of
Christian denominations. When Martin Luther stood before the authorities
and said ``Ich kann nicht anders''--``I cannot do otherwise''--he asserted
the primacy of individual judgment, which made the claims of patriotism
However, patriotism, although now conditioned by other loyalties,
still was, as it had been for Spartans, parochial: It was entirely about a
particular people and their traditions. Then came something new: America.
In a nation founded on ``self-evident principles,'' principles
purportedly of universal validity, patriotism involved more than looking
inward and backward. Berns notes that in our creedal nation, the first
nation not based on tradition, a word frequently heard in other nations'
backward-looking patriotisms--``fatherland''--has no place. Our Founding
Fathers are revered primarily for their creed, which was their greatest
But the creed contains a problem for patriotism. The creed says we are
endowed by our creator with rights, not duties, and that we grudgingly and
conditionally surrender limited powers to government only to escape the
``inconveniences'' (John Locke's carefully chosen word) of the state of
nature. So we become citizens out of self-interest. Of what kind of
patriotism are such people capable?
The answer--fierce patriotism--is written in row upon row of stone
markers in military cemeteries. Alexander Hamilton, one of General
Washington's aides during the Revolutionary War, wrote (in Federalist No.
8) that ``the industrious habits of the people of the present day, absorbed
in the pursuits of gain and devoted to the improvements of agriculture and
commerce,'' do not make for good soldiers. Hamilton was wrong.
What Lincoln called ``the silent artillery of time'' has done its
work, reducing to mental rubble our understanding of the origin of Memorial
Day in the decoration of the graves of a war that killed 620,000 Americans,
about 1.8 percent of the population in 1865. Two of Lincoln's greatest
speeches, his First Inaugural and his Gettysburg Address, invoke soldiers'
graves. The former concluded by invoking ``the mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart
and hearthstone.'' The latter was delivered at the dedication of a military
Human beings are biological facts, patriots are social artifacts, and
much has changed since John Jay said (in Federalist No. 2) that Americans
were ``a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same
language, professing the same religion.'' Now we are more ``diverse.''
But we were even then more diverse than Jay's words suggested. Aside
from 757,000 slaves (in a total American population of 3.9 million), there
were, for example, enough Americans who spoke only German that Congress
seriously considered printing laws in German as well as English.
And again, in our nation, patriotism is creedal, not ancestral. Many
ardent patriots who have recently arrived here know, better than some
people with many ancestors buried here, precisely why they are patriotic.
In 1991, Florida, in a fit of the modern spirit of
``nonjudgmentalism'' and ``multiculturalism'' and all that, enacted a
statute requiring public schools to teach that no culture ``is
intrinsically superior or inferior to another.'' Well. As Berns says, this
told Florida's immigrant communities something they knew to be
preposterous--that they might as well have stayed in Cuba or Haiti or