What Memorial Day Means

Memorial Day is a time each year to remember those who died for our nation in war against our enemies.  In honoring these good men, it is just as important to remember what they were fighting and dying to defend and to preserve.  These days, it seems as if politicians of every stripe prattle on about the economy and restoring prosperity to the middle class and similar appeals to material self-interest.

But men did not die on the bloody beaches of distant lands for material gains, and the men who founded our nation did not fight for our independence for commercial reasons.  One of the earliest expressions of this purpose was made by the Scots in their own war of independence against the British.  The 1320 Declaration of Arbroath states that “[i]t is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honors that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.”

Our own Declaration of Independence states that the purpose of government is the protection of:  “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” and then, significantly, at the end of that document, states that the signers pledge “our lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”  The Preamble to the Constitution that followed eleven years later notes the purposes of the Constitution as “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity[.]”

The same year as our Declaration, Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations observed that liberty also produces prosperity, but that was not in the mind of the Founding Fathers any more than it was in the mind of the Scots in 1320.  Liberty, not prosperity, was worth dying to protect – and, obviously, wealth and prosperity were worth sacrificing for liberty.  That is the real message for us today of the sacrifices made by men whose blood flowed and lives ended for the sake of this liberty.

Lincoln at Gettysburg told the crowds who saw bloodletting the likes of which had not been seen in modern times that our nation was:  “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”  In concluding that short address, he told those in attendance, “[W]e here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom[.]”

I find it profoundly disheartening to hear politicians of all parties and professed beliefs talk incessantly about the prime importance of the economy and the exalted status of prosperity.  Those of us who are “poor” in America today would be rich by the standards of our Founding Fathers and the men who shivered and died at Valley Forge.  Bluntly stated, when our greatest health problem is obesity, including the fat poor, then our greatest problem is not poverty – at least not poverty of the body.

The notion that America was founded to help make us wealthy was deliberately introduced into American political thought beginning with academia in the 1920s by Marxists, who rewrote American political history into the battle between economic classes.  This noxious idea seemed to infiltrate general political rhetoric with Bill Clinton’s odious theme of 1992: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Clinton was not just intellectually wrong, but also morally and spiritually wrong.  Those of us, including conservatives, who want wealth more than they want liberty behave precisely as Marxists predict Americans behave.  If wealth is the highest value, then whatever politics enriches Americans most is the best political thinking, with the necessary corollary in a political system splintered into mistrustful factions as follows: whatever helps me and my friends do well materially is the best political system.   

It is a happy fact that Adam Smith found and others have confirmed that a side-effect of liberty is an increase in material well-being, but what Memorial Day really means is that everything we have, least of all the “stuff” we have, right down to the blood that flowed from the bodies of men dying on distant beaches in service to our Land of Liberty, is worth it to preserve and to protect that liberty.