Why Do We Celebrate Our Nation?
By Nancy Spannaus
June 1, 2022—Memorial Day, which we celebrated earlier this week, marks the beginning of what I would call the patriotic season. Three national holidays occur over the course of a little more than a month: Memorial Day is followed by Flag Day on June 14, which is then followed by the Fourth of July. Flags will be waving, parades held, patriotic colors will be worn, and iconic anthems will be sung, all praising our accomplishments as a nation, unfortunately with not a little triumphalism thrown in.
The fact that this spate of holidays coincides with the beginning of summer vacation clearly adds even more gaiety to the events.
But how many of us stop to think about the actual significance of these celebrations? It’s easy to be swept up in the celebratory mood, or the sense of nostalgia, or the heart-rending stories of those who sacrificed their lives in our national struggles. True citizenship, however, requires an understanding of the history of our nation, its highs and lows, and the basic principles on which it stands or falls.
A population which is guided primarily by its emotions is a population headed for trouble. Emotions can be aroused by both dictators and heroes, as no less a student of our history than Abraham Lincoln pointed out in his famous speech on the preservation of our republic institutions back in 1838. One of the distinguishing features of our nation, in fact, was the extent to which it was founded upon ideas or principles, rather than the dictates or appeals to geographic origin, a common history, or even language.
As Alexander Hamilton put it in the opening essay in the Federalist papers,
“It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”
A Snapshot of the Holidays
So, let’s take a quick look at the three summer patriotic holidays, to test how much we know.
Memorial Day: The origins of this holiday lie in the aftermath of the Civil War, a war which killed some 700,000 of our citizens. Unofficial strewings of flowers on the graves of the war dead were followed by Official Orders 11, issued by General John A. Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in 1868. Logan’s proclamation called for decorating and protecting the resting places of the soldiers killed in the Civil War on May 30 of every year. In 1950, President Harry Truman responded to a resolution in Congress to extend the day to honoring all the nation’s war dead.
In addition, this resolution shifted the focus toward not simply commemorating the past but preventing war in the future!
Truman’s proclamation reflected the solemnity of the event. It began:
Since war is the world’s most terrible scourge, we should do all in our power to prevent its recurrence.
It was the hope of mankind that with the cessation of hostilities of World War II the way would be open to founding a permanent peace. Instead, that war has left the world in a state of continued unrest. Accordingly, we feel the need of turning in humble suppliance to Almighty God for help and guidance. …
Flag Day: While Flag Day never gets the kind of hoopla inspired by the other two patriotic events, we citizens should certainly know what this official federal holiday is all about. After all, many Americans literally died protecting that flag. And, for many of our fellow citizens, judging by the streets of hundreds of American hometowns, every day is flag day.
June 14 was chosen as Flag Day because it was on that day in 1777 that the Continental Congress passed the following resolution: Resolved, That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation. This design replaced what was called the Grand Union flag, which incorporated the Union Jack in place of the stars, along with the white and red stripes.
The first recognition of the official American flag came from French vessels in Quiberon Bay, France, saluted John Paul Jones and his ship, “The Ranger” on Feb. 14, 1778. But the honor of first acknowledging U.S. sovereignty by saluting the unofficial American flag goes to the island of St. Eustatius. Today, a plaque stands on the island, which tells the story:
In Commemoration of the Salute to the flag of the United States fired in this fort on 16 November 1776 by orders of Johannes de Graaff, Governor of Sint-Eustatius in reply to a national gun-salute fired by the United States brig-of-war Andrew Doria under captain Isaiah Robinson of the Continental Navy. Here the sovereignty of the United States of America was first formally acknowledged to a national vessel by a foreign official. Presented by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States of America.
Independence Day: This is the big one, of course, and it will be the subject of further articles, perhaps a series, on this blog over the coming weeks and months, especially as we are coming up upon the 250th anniversary of the proclamation of the Declaration of Independence. I have previously elaborated on the strategic significance of the decision for its issuance, as well as the political battle involved in ensuring it would be adopted by Congress.
But there is much more to be unraveled here, and it is of vital importance to the future of our country. A significant portion of our citizens, many motivated by noble sentiments in favor of racial and sexual equality, now proclaims this document to be an exercise in hypocrisy. Some even fall for the false assertion that independence was declared in order to defend slavery. And on the pro-Declaration side of the argument, we find the purposes of the Founders reduced to objections to the tea tax, or equated with the equivalent of libertarianism, i.e., freedom to “do your own thing.”
Again, I feel compelled to point to the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln in his 1838 Lyceum speech, which is so relevant to us today. Now that the Founders are dead, and the emotions of the Revolutionary period are passed, Lincoln said, we must find other means to preserve our republican institutions. Referring to the passing of the Revolutionary generation, he said:
“But those histories are gone. They can be read no more forever. They were a fortress of strength; but what invading foeman could never do, the silent artillery of time has done; the leveling of its walls. They are gone. They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded, to murmur in a few gentle breezes, and to combat with its mutilated limbs, a few more ruder storms, then to sink, and be no more.
“They were the pillars of the temple of liberty; and now, that they have crumbled away, that temple must fall, unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason. Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.
Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws …”
Lincoln’s advice, like that of George Washington and others, was that our patriotism must be informed by knowledge. In our current turbulent times, we ignore that advice at our peril.
 The GAR was a fraternal organization of Union veterans established in 1866.