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The Heritage Of The Commonwealth

"Wherefore I praise the dead that are already dead, more than the living that are yet alive."—Eccl. iv: 2.

CONVERSATIONS before and during the procession on Memorial Day revealed the fact that in the minds of not a few of the veterans still with us Memorial Day is coming more and more to be characterized by exhibitions of mere holiday hilarity, little in keeping with the solemn sentiments of reverence and gratitude which inspired and brought about the institution and observance of Memorial Day.

It may be well then, on this the Lord's Day and in the courts of His house, to remind ourselves of the real meaning of Memorial Day, to recall some of the solid grounds of obligation and respect upon which our gratitude and reverence for the brave dead do rightfully rest.

We honor the brave dead, then, for the noble work in which they wrought noble war is noble work. Let us distinguish wars differ from each other as assassination differs from surgery, as the vanity of duelling differs from the heroic defence of home and household against the armed burglar or murderer. The war of mere ambition or mad passion is abhorrent to God and to the moral sense of mankind. But war where the eternal principles of liberty, justice, and good government are at stake finds vindication alike in the reason of man and the revelation of God. The Old Testament is written from end to end in the very key of the battle trumpet—" the Lord is the God of battle." The New Testament, as a great writer has pointed out, nowhere disparages the military life, but rather delights to employ its analogies of discipline, devotion, and valor to enforce the rule and to illustrate the virtues of Christian life and conflict. Compare, or rather contrast, the spirit and principles of the military life with those of the industrial and commercial life of the day I challenge contradiction when I say that the principles of the former are far more nearly the ideal than the latter. The spirit of the army is summed up in two words, Duty and Honor. Am I wrong in saying the confessed and recognized ideal of the other is personal advantage and selfish aggrandizement? There is to-day far more of personal hatred, hard feeling, and malevolent rivalry wrapped up in the word "Business" than in the word "Battle." I undertake to defend the assertion that more of individual animosity and personal ill-will is entertained and exhibited in many a ten-dollar lawsuit than was felt by all the hosts engaged on any of the great battlefields of the war. In battle especially the battles of today where such tremendous energy is employed the passion of hatred the direct and definite enmity in the breast of the soldier actually engaged is in reality merely spectral in amount it is as nothing. His mood of mind is more nearly that of the sailor in the midst of the storm at sea there is no personal element in his rage. He feels himself, as it were, but an atom swept along in clashing conflict by the two great oceans of contending forces.

Viewed again from the standpoint of history, war seems to be designed, in the Divine economy of this world, to be the remedy of real though last resort for the recovery and restoration of a nation to its better self. Survey the course of history and you find it the recurring misfortune of humanity, in periods of prolonged repose, to become so engrossed with ignoble cares the pleasures of sense the mad pursuit of wealth of mere gain and on getting as to lose all sense and conviction of the moral dignity of human destiny. Selfishness of aim and aspiration characterize the national life. The great atheist cry grows louder and louder "The life is no more than the meat, and the body than raiment." It is at such periods the pursuing purpose of Divine Providence overtakes an age or a people and rescues them from moral corruption by the stern and searching remedy of war. At such times the tempests of battle are "the stormy winds fulfilling his word "—that like mountain breezes sweep in "with healing on their wings" amid the crowded and corrupt avenues of national life. The Angel of Mercy in the garb of an Angel of War comes to surprise the repose of widespread selfishness, to pour confusion and uproar into the "piping times of peace "—to break up, in a word, with unsparing mercy, the long propriety of national stagnation and moral degeneracy which invests a people given over to custom and self and material aggrandizement. So it was at the epoch of our Civil War. At the final hour, when it was evident we would no longer redeem our-selves by peaceful means, Providence planned our rescue by the violence of war.

In this great "work of God" then this work of national deliverance of national elevation and renewal--the noble dead we commemorated on Memorial Day were called to be most honored instruments. Co-workers with the moral Providence of the world, they share alike in the lustre of the deed. They stand "transfigured in the light" with that noble army of martyrs the elect of every age who made part of the Divine power against evil in the regeneration of the world. Wherefore we honor them on Memorial Day for the noble work in which they wrought. We honor the brave dead not only for this but for the noble heritage they have left us material and moral.

Material heritage: "What have we that we did not receive?" may well be the confession on every lip as we reflect that this magnificent continent on which we dwell has been purchased and bestowed upon us by the patriot dead. We possess it by deed of gift, countersigned with the blood of the fallen braves. Survey then, in imagination, the magnificent heritage the broad plains, rich with coming harvests, the lofty mountains clothed with deep forests, hiding within them "the precious things of the ever-lasting hills " these and all that rest on these the cities of wealth and splendor the peaceful villages all institutions of art and science, religion and liberty. Survey these and then read the inscription written across the continent in patriot blood: "Purchased and redeemed by the valor and sacrifice of the soldier dead." As Ruskin finely said of the old Cathedral builders, "they took with them to their graves their faults, their failings, their infirmities, all the littlenesses of life, but in the superb Cathedral they have left us their devotion." We may repeat the same in the truest sense of our dead. This superb country the whole country is their monument with all its incomparable store of beauty and power and treasure, it is at once their gift and their memorial.

It seems in place to emphasize this fact to-day. Aristotle said long ago of all the virtues, gratitude is the one that soonest grows old.

Above all, we honor the brave dead on Memorial Day for the moral heritage they have left us the priceless and imperishable example of patriotic devotion and heroic self-sacrifice.

The most glorious of all national possessions is the living tradition of heroic lives. The old Roman legend of Marcus Curtius plunging his horse over the brink of the forum's chasm as he cried, "Rome's best riches are her bravest men," embodies an everlasting truth. This grand old parable of manhood may be called the pagan comment on the words of inspiration, "I will make a man more precious than gold a man than the golden wedge of Ophir."

The nation, after all, is but the individual man, "writ large" as Milton would say. It is not the body, much less the clothing, that makes the man great. It is the nobility of soul alone that gives to manhood its grandeur and its worth. Make a man's garments as resplendent as you may, deepen the purple in his robes of power, increase his bodily vigor to the strength of Hercules, discipline to full perfection his powers of sharp and selfish insight, yet if the nobler soul be uncared for, if the spirit within him be the slave of insurgent passions and ignoble moods, he is no longer great, he is a shell, he is a wreck, a hollow surprise, no better than the puff-ball of the field, filled with dust and darkness. So, likewise, in a nation's life. Let a nation neglect the nobler virtues, and though she may increase her treasures, multiply her industries, crown her eminences with temple and palace and court, whiten the seas with her frequent sail, yet the finger of decline and death is upon her. Her material riches are no more her support than the camel's burden is the camel's strength.

The nation, as the individual, has a moral destiny; and the recognition of this great truth we take to be the characteristic which distinguishes true statesmanship from mere statecraft, the true statesman from the mere politician.

The pettifogging politician who ignores or dismisses with a sneer the moral aim of national life and "points with pride" to mere wealth and material prosperity, when high virtue, valor, and patriotic devotion are wanting, reasons like the madman who mistakes his jailer for a guard of honor. He is no more to be classed with true statesmen than a ship's carpenter is to be ranked with navigators, or a camp sutler with the generals of an army.

The secret and the guarantee of national strength and greatness then are the nobler virtues. But how best are they to be awakened and maintained? The answer is in one word Example.

All experience proves that mere precept and maxim and ad-monition can furnish but feeble energy for good in a world like this. It is to living patterns and instances that we must look. And it is, in a word, Example, which possesses and provides the real power and practical efficiency for enlarging and uplifting men and nations.

And here we eagerly confess, all worthy lives are a contribution so far forth to the national store of greatness and strength, but above all and before all, we place the example of absolute self-sacrifice for the country and the common good by the patriot dead whom we honor on Memorial Day.

Destiny demanded an immense ransom for a guilty past. The brave dead replied, calmly and without halt or hesitation, without pause or regret, "Here are we, take us!" In spirit, if not in words, they said, "We seek no treasures of wealth in return, no storied monument or noisy recognition from the trump of fame; we ask but bread to our hunger, water to our thirst, linen for our wounds, and arms with which to win our country's cause or die with honor on the field."

In the memorable words of President Garfield, "They summed up and perfected by one supreme act the highest virtue of men and citizens." All gave somewhat many gave much; but the dead gave all, even life itself. "Wherefore, we praise the dead that are already dead, more than the living that are yet alive."

Further, let us not fail to emphasize the glorious truth that not alone the great captains, the shining names of history but the common soldiers of the line, the youngest, the weakest, the humblest, each and all share equally in the consecration and the honor of the great sacrifice. Astronomers tell us that it is not the heat of the great sun alone, but the heat of the unnamed and numberless stars that renders the earth habitable and prepares and preserves the temperature and conditions of material life. The analogy is most striking and most true between the material and the moral world. It is not alone by the conspicuous examples of the famous few, the great captains in war, the great leaders in peace, that the moral temperature is maintained, that makes possible the nobler virtues and exalts the common spirit of the people, but the nameless and numberless dead who have given their examples, but not their names, to history. It is these, the common soldiers, the heroes of the line, which like the innumerable stars contribute their indispensable proportion to the great effect. Individually unknown to history, no song of minstrel, or page of chronicler, makes record of their names, yet the collective virtues of their heroic examples create that moral temperature which enkindles and sustains the nation's nobler light.

So with "banner and with musket and with priest"

we honor the brave dead on Memorial Day. In sepulchre known or nameless, upon a thousand battlefields, in the ditch-graves of prison pens, their bodies lie at rest, but the magnanimities of their valor and devotion, their great deeds of self-sacrifice, like stars of imperishable lustre, "shall arise and remain and take station" forevermore in the moral firmament of man!

( Originally Published 1914 )

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