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Patriotic Celebrations

Epigraphs to Part 7

Patriotism having become one of our topics, Johnson suddenly uttered in a strong, determined tone, an apothegm at which many will start: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." But let it be considered that he did not mean real and genuine love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest.
-- Boswell's "Johnson"

Our country is the world -- our countrymen are all mankind
-- William Lloyd Garrison

Would we tread in the paths of tyranny,
 Nor reckon the tyrant's cost?

Who taketh another's liberty,
 His freedom is also lost.

Would we win as the strong have ever won?
 Make ready to pay the debt.

For the God who reigned over Babylon
 Is the God who is reigning yet.

The laws of right are eternal laws,
 The judgments of truth are true

My greed-blind masters, I bid you pause
 And look on the work you do.

You bind with shackles your fellow man;
 Your hands with his blood are wet.

And the God who reigned over Babylon
 Is the God who is reigning yet.
-- J.A. Edgerton, in "Democratic Magazine."

Though your word shall run with power, and your arm reach overseas,

Yet the questing bolt shall find you if you keep not faith with these;

Lest you be at one with Egypt, lest you lie as Rome lies now

In the potter's field of empires, mint and cumin, keep the vow.

Keep the truth your fathers made,
Lest your children grow afraid,

Lest you hear the captives' mothers weeping sore --

There is little worth beside --
They are dead because they lied,

And the young men's feet are at the door.
-- Mary Austin in "Land of Sunshine" for February, 1900

Toll for the death of the Empire! Through the gloom

 Deep and vibrating, speaks the solemn bell

The last dread warning of the coming doom:

 His body to the dust; his deeds to hell!

Toll for the death of Empire! Lift the head;

 Take off the crown of tyranny and fear;
 And let no man do honor at the bier.

Ring for the reign of Freedom.

Empire's dead!
-- Bertrand Shadwell in The Public, for March 29, 1902

Louis F. Post
The Ethics of Democracy
Part 7, Patriotism

Chapter 5
Patriotic Celebrations


It is a gratifying fact that neither of the great American Holidays -- Independence Day and Memorial Day -- though both are connected with war, is in commemoration of the victories of war. One celebrates our national recognition of the democratic ideals toward which the face of the nation was turned from the start. The other is a day of affectionate remembrance of the nation's dead.


This is significant of the American spirit. We have celebrated victories in the midst of wars, and at the close of wars we have glorified our triumphs; but all attempts to perpetuate that species of celebration in this country have failed. It is not in keeping with the American character as a whole to take pleasure in memories of war, not is it consistent with the American disposition to gloat systematically over conquered enemies.


Those there are among us, to be sure, who would stimulate morbid cravings for excitement by involving the nation in unnecessary wars. They would utilize the intervals of peace partly with preparations for wars to come and partly with celebrations of victories achieved. But these are not typical Americans. Though they put themselves so much in evidence when war is upon us as to seem to be typical, yet after strutting their brief strut they pass off the stage into oblivion, and the grand commemorations of battle and victory they had planned for future generations are heard no more. The American people are not a victory-worshiping people.


In that there is hope. It is a subject for noble national pride. The nation that celebrates battle victories is a brutal nation. Not that war is under all circumstances to be avoided. Wars are sometimes necessary conditions of national righteousness. So long as there is national injustice, so long will the possibility of righteous war persist. Injustice is worse than war, and some forms of injustice can be righted only by war. But even the most righteous war comes not as a welcome opportunity for displays of martial prowess; it comes as a solemn national duty. Its victories, therefore, no less than its defeats, are solemn events. They are not occasions for rejoicing. Nothing which involves desolation and death can be made an occasion for sane rejoicing, however beneficial to mankind the after results may be. We may gladly and with great rejoicing cherish the righteous effects; but to celebrate the carnage of victorious battle is to sink to the level of savages. Few things more repugnant to good taste and good morals could well be conceived than national celebrations of national victories in war.


It is with peculiar satisfaction, then, that Americans whose patriotism is intelligent and mature may always contemplate the approach of the two great national holidays of their country. Though Memorial Day lacks the inspiration for the future which belongs to the character of Independence Day, and though it offers temptations to excursions among the tombs of dead issues with our backs turned upon living principles, nevertheless it celebrates no carnage, glorifies no victory, perpetuates no hatreds. Alike upon the graves of victor and vanquished, of friend and of foe, affection scatters memorial flowers. The day is consecrated to peace, though it be the peace of death, and not to the destruction and desolation of victorious war. While not the better of our two national holidays, Memorial Day is in no wise inconsistent with that genuine American spirit to which even the most righteous war is tolerable only as a terrible duty.


But Independence Day is better. It is consecrated not only to peace, but also to the ideals that make peace possible. Its inspiring appeal is to the righteous theory upon which our nation is founded; and however crudely, even barbarously, we may celebrate its annual return, we can never quite escape its sacred lesson. The gist of that lesson is, not that we once became an independent nation, but that in becoming one we laid its foundation in the immutable principle of equal human rights. The "glittering generalities" of our Declaration of Independence are the glorious ideals of our republic, which we celebrate on its natal day.


That we do not advance farther and faster in the direction of those ideals, is what sometimes disheartens the democratic optimist who believes in their truth and has faith in their ultimate triumph.

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