Lesson Plan Idea: Compare Douglass and Holmes on Memorial Day

May 17th, 2013

How should we honor those who gave their lives in battle? Can we properly honor them if we do not honor their cause? This has been a difficult question for many Americans on Memorial Day—particularly so in the aftermath of the Civil War. As Americans sought to rebuild the nation, they faced the question of how to celebrate the holiday (then called Decoration Day), and whether to remember only their own dead or to reconcile with their former enemies by recognizing and commemorating their shared sacrifice.

Two different views can be found in Frederick Douglass’ 1871 Address at the Monument of the Unknown Dead and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.’s 1884 remarks, “In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched with Fire.”

In his address, former slave and abolitionist leader Douglass rejects the claim that it is the zeal, courage, and personal nobility of the wartime dead that most deserve our honor and respect. Borrowing directly from Scripture (Psalm 137) Douglass says: “I would not repel the repentant; but may my ‘right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’ if I forget the difference between the parties to that terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.”

In his speech, Holmes, a Civil War veteran and later a distinguished justice of the United States Supreme Court, deliberately sets aside questions about justice, about who started the war and for what each side fought. He abstracts from the larger purposes and meaning of the Civil War to provide, as he puts it, “an answer which should command the assent of those who do not share our memories, and in which we of the North and our brethren of the South could join in perfect accord.” In celebrating Memorial Day, he argues, we celebrate the courage of both sides and the convictions of those “who g[a]ve all for their belief.”

Closely read each speech, and then consider the following questions. What, according to Douglass and Holmes, is the purpose and significance of Memorial Day? What do you think accounts for the differences in their views? Which speech do you find more persuasive? Why? What does true reconciliation require? Which speech is more conducive to that cause? How should we celebrate Memorial Day today?

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