Memorial Day at Arlington
William Jennings Bryan
Delivered in Arlington Cemetery, Washington, D. C., on Decoration Day, May 30, 1894.
WITH flowers in our hands and sadness in our hearts we stand amid the tombs
where the nation’s dead are sleeping. It is appropriate that the Chief
Executive is here, accompanied by his Cabinet; it is appropriate that the
soldier’s widow is here, and the soldier’s son; it is appropriate that
here are assembled, in numbers growing less each year, the scarred survivors,
Federal and Confederate, of our last great war; it is appropriate, also,
that these exercises in honor of comrades dead should be conducted by comrades
still surviving. All too soon the day will come when these graves must
be decorated by hands unused to implements of war, and when these speeches
must be made by lips that never answered to a roll call.
We, who are of the aftermath, cannot look upon the flag with the same emotions
that thrill you who have followed it as your pillar of cloud by day and
your pillar of fire by night, nor can we appreciate it as you can who have
seen it waving in front of reinforcements when succor meant escape from
death; neither can we, standing by these blossom-covered mounds, feel as
you have often felt when far away from home and on hostile soil you have
laid your companions to rest; but from a new generation we can bring you
the welcome assurance that the commemoration of this day will not depart
with you. We may neglect the places where the nation’s greatest victories
have been won, but we cannot forget the Arlingtons which the nation has
consecrated with its tears.
To ourselves as well as to the dead we owe the duty which we discharge here, for monuments and memorial days declare the patriotism of the living no less than the virtues of those whom they commemorate.
We would be blind indeed to our own interests and to the welfare of posterity
if we were deaf to the just demands of the soldier and his dependents.
We are grateful for the services rendered by our defenders, whether illustrious
or nameless, and yet a nation’s gratitude is not entirely unselfish, since
by our regard for the dead we add to the security of the living; by our
remembrance of those who have suffered we give inspiration to those upon
whose valor we must hereafter rely, and prove ourselves worthy of the sacrifices
which have been. made and which may be again required.
The essence of patriotism lies in a willingness to sacrifice for one’s
country, just as true greatness finds expression, not in blessings enjoyed,
but in. good bestowed. Read the words inscribed on the monuments reared
by loving hands to the heroes of the past; they do not speak of wealth
inherited, or honors bought or of hours in leisure spent, but of service
done. Twenty years, forty years, a life or life’s most precious blood he
yielded up for the welfare of his fellows—this is the simple story which
proves that it is now, and ever has been, more blessed to give than to
The officer was a patriot when he gave his ability to his country and risked
his name and fame upon the fortunes of war; the private soldier was a patriot
when he took his place in the ranks and offered his body as a bulwark to
protect the flag; the wife was a patriot when she bade her husband farewell
and gathered about her the little brood over which she must exercise both
a mother’s and a father’s care; and, if there can be degrees in patriotism,
the mother stood first among the patriots when she gave to the nation her
sons, the divinely appointed support of her declining years, and as she
brushed the tears away thanked God that he had given her the strength to
rear strong and courageous sons for the battlefield.
To us who were born too late to prove upon the battlefield our courage and our loyalty it is gratifying to know that opportunity will not be wanting to show our love of country. In a nation like ours, where the Government is founded upon the principle of equality and derives its just powers from the consent of the governed; in a land like ours, I say, where every citizen is a sovereign and where no one cares to wear a crown, every year presents a battlefield and every day brings forth occasion for the display of patriotism.
And on this memorial day we shall fall short of our duty if we content
ourselves with praising the dead or complimenting the living and fail to
make preparations for those responsibilities which present times and present
conditions impose upon us. We can find instruction in that incomparable
address delivered by Abraham Lincoln on the battlefield of Gettysburg.
It should be read as a part of the exercises of this day on each returning
year as the Declaration of Independence is read on the Fourth of July.
Let me quote from it, for its truths, like all truths, are applicable in
all times and climes:
“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place
for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is
altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense
we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it
far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note,
nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they
did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the
unfinished work which they who fought here thus far so nobly advanced.”
“The Unfinished Work.” Yes, every generation leaves to its successor an
unfinished work. The work of society, the work of human progress, the work
of civilization is never completed. We build upon the foundation which
we find already laid and those who follow us take up the work where we
leave off. Those who fought and fell thirty years ago did nobly advance
the work in their day, for they led the nation up to higher grounds. Theirs
was the greatest triumph in all history. Other armies have been inspired
by love of conquest or have fought to repel a foreign enemy, but our armies
held within the Union brethren who now rejoice at their own defeat and
glory in the preservation of the nation which they once sought to dismember.
No greater victory can be won by citizens or soldiers than to transform
temporary foes into permanent friends. But let me quote again:
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us; that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion; that 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 and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Aye, let us here dedicate ourselves anew to this unfinished work which requires of each generation constant sacrifice and unceasing care. Pericles, in speaking of those who fell in the Peloponnesian war, lauded the loyalty of his countrymen when he said:
“It was for such a country, then, that these men, nobly resolving not to have it taken from them, fell fighting, and every one of their survivors may be willing to suffer in its behalf.”
The strength of a nation does not lie in forts, nor in navies, nor yet in great standing armies, but in happy and contented citizens, who are ever ready to protect for themselves and to preserve for posterity the blessings which they enjoy. It is for us of this generation so to perform the duties of citizenship that a “government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”