By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 13, 2020—Yesterday my husband and I attended the commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday at the Lincoln Memorial for the third year in a row. The hour-long ceremony is hosted by the National Park Service and the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), who form, along with several other organizations, a Lincoln Birthday National Commemorative Committee. The great hall was not filled to overflowing, but perhaps as many as 150 people attended, including many visitors from groups around the country dedicated to honoring President Lincoln’s memory.

The Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

There are two emotional highlights of this event, held before the imposing and evocative statue of the man I consider our greatest president, and a quintessential representative of the American System.  The first is the reading of the Gettysburg address, an honor given to a different dignitary each year.  The second is the playing of taps for the departed President—which concludes the ceremony.

This year the Address was recited by Washington, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, who prefaced her reading by recalling the fact that President Lincoln had unilaterally liberated the enslaved in Washington, D.C. five months before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862. She spoke in a strong, clear voice, to great effect.

Later in the program, the audience was again deeply stirred by the singing of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, performed a capella at a slow tempo by Kristy Bell from Lincoln Memorial University.

The solemn annual ceremony concluded, as is customary, with the presentation of wreaths at the base of the statue by more than a dozen patriotic organizations and institutions, including the President of the United States.

The Origins

The origins of this celebration lie in 1922. That was the year that President Warren G. Harding charged MOLLUS with arranging and executing the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial on May 30.  Each year thereafter, MOLLUS has organized ceremonies on February 12 in honor of President Lincoln.

But what is MOLLUS, many may ask.

The Lincoln funeral march through New York City

The organization was formed in the immediate aftermath of the shooting of President Lincoln on April 14, 1865. As rumors of a conspiracy to destroy the Federal government swirled, a group of Union Army Officers decided to from an organization that could help thwart future threats to the national government.

Six days later, a mass meeting of veterans was held in Philadelphia, to pledge allegiance to the Union and plan for participation in Lincoln’s funeral. The military officers, who served as an honor guard for the President’s funeral cortege, met again after the funeral to establish a permanent organization of officers and former officers “in honor of his illustrious memory and of that great cause for which we fought, in recognition of the affectionate friendships which had been inspired among the officers of the Army then about to disband.”[1] The permanent organization, patterned on the Society of the Cincinnati, was launched on May 31 in Philadelphia, at a meeting at Independence Hall.

The MOLLUS membership has included most of the prominent Union generals in the Civil War, including Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William T Sherman; Major Generals Rutherford B. Hayes and Grenville M. Dodge; and Admiral David G. Farragut. Presidents Chester Arthur, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley were also members of the association.

MOLLUS members pose with the wreaths left at the 2020 ceremony.

From the beginning, and through to today, MOLLUS is strongly committed to preserving and promoting the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. In so doing, it works closely with Lincoln Memorial University, which is located in Harrogate, Tennessee, a small town in the Cumberland Gap region of that state.

Lincoln Memorial was established in 1897 at the initiative of General O.O. Howard. As legend has it, President Lincoln had told General Howard back in 1863 that the people of eastern Tennessee, who remained loyal to the Union, should have their loyalty rewarded. Decades later, Howard fulfilled this request by joining with a number of others, to establish the educational institution,[2] which continues to thrive.

The Lincoln Legacy

It would be hard to overstate the importance of studying and celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s legacy today. Our country’s sectional, political, and racial polarization cries out for the kind of statesmanship Lincoln evoked in his Second Inaugural Address. It was therefore no surprise that the Senior Chaplain of the White House Military Office, Commander Robert E. Bradshaw, concluded his prayer with Lincoln’s immortal words:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with the world. all nations.

To accomplish that task, however, we desperately need to take up another aspect of Lincoln’s legacy – his American System economic policies. As I argue in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street, Lincoln’s economic policies in many respects represented the fulfillment of Alexander Hamilton’s economic principles. He established a national banking system, and used Federal credit to build a national infrastructure, most notably the Transcontinental Railroad. He protected industry and labor with the tariff, while establishing the system of land grant colleges that raised the power of labor. He ended slavery. All combined, these policies were aimed at unifying the nation economically and politically, and setting the stage for continuous prosperity.

The Corliss steam engine featured at the 1876 American Centennial, a showcare of American System progress.

As a result of these policies, by the late 19th Century, the United States became the industrial envy of the world.

I will not repeat here the history of what has happened after Lincoln’s tragic assassination in the realm of our political economy. Suffice it to say that the American System principles which he, and later Franklin Roosevelt, embodied, have been obscured and virtually buried. It remains for us to revive those principles of Union which Lincoln addressed so poetically in his first Inaugural Address:

The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, 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.

[1] This information, and much more, comes from the MOLLUS website.

[2] See LMU’s description of its origins here.


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