By Nancy Spannaus

May 26, 2024 – No, Memorial Day is not a day to celebrate the beginning of the summer season. It has been set aside as a day of somber recognition and remembrance of those who died in our nation’s wars – and an implicit dedication to ensuring such bloodshed not occur again.

As all Americans should know, Memorial Day began as a national holiday (called Decoration Day) in 1868. Its purpose was to strew flowers on the graves of Union veterans in a “solemn” remembrance, and rededication to aiding the widows and orphans of those who died in the Civil War.[1]

What If Memorial Day Hadn't Been Necessary?
Section 13 of Arlington Cemetery, where Civil War veterans are buried. Arlington was established to bury the Civil War dead.

Very rapidly, the ceremony expanded to include putting flowers on both Union and Confederate graves. The theme of reconciliation came to the fore. In a nation devastated by the death of up to 750,000 people, and the broader bitter aftermath of the struggle, the desire for “binding up the wounds” was a significant force.

But what if Memorial Day hadn’t been necessary at all? What if slavery could have been eliminated without the cataclysmic Civil War? Let me take a moment to discuss that question, while simultaneously reminding you to spend at least a portion of this holiday recollecting its beginnings, and committing yourself to seeking to ensure an end to such brutal wars.

Defeating Slavery

As I argue in my book Defeating Slavery: Hamilton’s American System Showed the Way, there was always an active political battle against the continuation of slavery in America. Anti-slavery agitation was an integral part of the revolutionary movement, and major strides against the institution were taken in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty of Paris.

What that movement lacked, however, was an alternative to the slave-based economic system. We had to stop being a raw materials exporter for the British Empire, and develop our own national agro-industrial economy. Alexander Hamilton had that vision, and put forward a perspective for accomplishing it in his 1791 Report on Manufactures. Unfortunately, his plans met the concerted opposition of not only the British oligarchy, but also those Americans whose livelihoods were dependent upon commerce with the British, especially the slave trade. Hamilton’s project was stalled.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society, first established in 1775, was renamed in 1785.

Advocates for Hamilton’s manufacturing perspective, as well as opponents of slavery, made significant progress in the 1820s, but met a powerful opponent in the Democratic Party, which was formed through an alliance between the Virginia slavocracy and New York bankers. Their chosen Presidential candidate, Andrew Jackson, did their bidding effectively by killing the Second Bank of the United States, gutting the protective tariff, and cancelling Federally funded infrastructure spending. By 1833, the die was effectively cast toward the Civil War.

Slavery was eventually eliminated by law, but at a terrible cost.

A Word from Lincoln

President Lincoln was not around for Memorial Day, of course. But had he been able to speak, I doubt he would have found better words than those he uttered at the conclusion of his Second Inaugural. “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 lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

This is the real task of Memorial Day, not picnics and bargain hunting. In this fractured world, let us commit ourselves to creating a “just and lasting peace” with and for all nations and peoples.

[1] Starting in the World War I period, the ceremonies were expanded to include all those who died in America’s wars. For more on the evolution of the Federal holiday, click here.

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