"Is This One?"

Stray Patriotic Thoughts

For Which I Will Always Have My Father, James Hand, To Thank
For Having Taught Me These Things In My Youth

On Washington's Farewell Addresses:

George Washington dedicated himself to the cause of American independence, and was rewarded with supreme command of the Revolutionary Army. After seven years of lost battles, enduring hardships from the enemy, the elements, and even from his own generals and his nation's disorganized and often paralyzed leadership, he won the war and he was rightfully acclaimed the greatest hero on the vast American continent. His staff of generals and other officers, disgruntled by the slow speed of legislative bureaucracy, fomented a military coup, and they encouraged Washington to lead them into Philadelphia and overthrow Congress and set himself up as the ruler of the new nation. With unspeakable grace, Washington refused.

Even two hundred years later, ours still remains the only revolution in the history of the world that has not turned on itself, and destroyed itself. And this because of one man. George Washington.

Instead, once peace with Great Britain was finally signed, Washington marched to Congress, not to deliver not an ultimatum on the point of a sword, but to deliver these words:

I have now the honor of offering my sincere congratulations to Congress, and of presenting myself before them, to surrender into their hands the trust committed to me, and to claim the indulgence of retiring from the service of my country. .... Having now finished the work assigned me, I retire from the great theatre of action, and, bidding an affectionate farewell to this august body, under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.
Even today, Washington's act seems incredible, and stands now as it did then and as it will forever as the ultimate mark of respect for and subservience to a civilian, citizen government -- to borrow a phrase, a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Four years after his resignation, the nation realized that the Union Washington fought for needed a new and more viable government, and it turned to the revolutionary hero for a peaceful solution. Emerging from his coveted retirement, he presided over the Constitutional Convention, knowing that he would then be called upon to serve his nation once more, this time as its first Chief Executive.

After perhaps the most productive, impressive, and important eight years given to us by any President, Washington retired once again, this time delivering his power back to the American people, in a touching and eloquent Farewell Address.

Unlike all of history's revolutionary leaders -- from Caesar to Cromwell to Lenin to Castro -- Washington voluntarily relinquished the most powerful position in his country to take his place again among the people he served. Britain's King George III, whose armies had been defeated by Washington, when he heard that Washington had given up power yet again, wrote that Washington's retirement, combined with his resignation fourteen years earlier, placed him "in a light the most distinguished of any living man" and made him "the greatest character of the age." Said the king, "If this is true, he is surely the greatest man in the history of the world."

In that respect, George III was right.

On The Star-Spangled Banner:

Consider the first and best-known verse of our national anthem:
Oh, say, can you see, by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
That's three sentences. And two of those sentences end with a question mark. Here they are again, only slightly differently phrased:

  1. Can you see, today, the same stars and stripes that flew yesterday?
  2. The rockets and bombs of the darkest battle did not bring down the banner that flew those stars and stripes — instead, they lit it up and allowed it to shine brighter.
  3. Does that same flag still fly over a nation of brave and free people?

Three sentences. Two of them questions. Ours is the only nation on earth whose national anthem is not a statement but a question.

Our national anthem does not boast, brag, or preach. Unlike other anthems of the world's nations, ours doesn't proclaim the greatness of the nation, its people, or even the ideals that it stands for. It doesn't promise or even claim that ours is a land of the free and the brave. It asks if ours is still a land of the free and the brave.

The anthem is not sung to inspire, awe, intimidate, or humble the peoples of other nations. Its words are aimed only at American ears. In this nation of the people, by the people, and for the people, it is We the People who control whether "that star-spangled banner yet waves o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." If not, shame on us. For it is We the People who constantly are asked by Francis Scott Key to pause in reverence for the same flag that inspired him so deeply, and to ask each other the question he posed for all Americans he knew and who would follow him. It is We the People who must constantly answer his question for each other. Every time you hear or sing the anthem, pay attention -- a question is being asked of you. Perhaps the most important question in the history of the world. The question is a uniquely American question, one we ask not of the world but of ourselves and each other.

With every rendition of our anthem, we ask ourselves and each other, "Does that star-spangled banner yet wave o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?" Only by bravely defending our freedom can we, today's Americans, answer Francis Scott Key's question with just as stirring and emphatic a "yes" as he felt when he rose from his slumber on a British man of war in Baltimore Harbor and saw his beloved American flag still flying, the morning after the pitched battle at Fort McHenry. Key wanted us to love the sight of the flag just as he did when he beheld it flying in all its glory after surviving the fires of war, and to devote ourselves to continuing the brave work that he saw being done to keep this nation forever free.

On Lincoln's Gettysburg Address:

Consider the full text of Lincoln's short speech:
     Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
      Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
      But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln's point, that mourning the nation's fallen heroes and dedicating ground to their memory is all well and good, and very important, but nowhere near as important as it is for the citizens who remain, for the citizens who now live in the nation for which the heroes fell -- as his eternal words say, for us here -- to be dedicated.

Dedicated to keeping the stars and stripes flying in a place that can still and always be called the land of the free and the home of the brave.

That's Abraham Lincoln, reminding his contemporaries and all of us who followed them, to forever redouble our dedication to ensuring that there will forever be only one answer to Francis Scott Key's question. And that answer will be the same answer that George Washington, a humble fellow citizen like you and me, had in mind when he spoke to his generals as they urged him to overthrow the government of the people, by the people, and for the people. This nation shall remain free only if we, the living, take care to keep it that way.

I was asked once to answer the question "What is the point Lincoln was making in using the word "nation" in the Gettysburg Adress?" Here is how I did so:

Lincoln's use of the word "nation" was important because before this time, a great many people still thought of the United States as exactly that -- a bunch of different states that were united only to do certain things together, and which were otherwise pretty-darn independent nations all to themselves. People from New York felt like they were New Yorkers, not "Americans". People from Vermont felt like they were Vermonters, not "Americans", and so forth.

Lincoln used the word "nation" five times in the speech.

Once in the beginning:

Thrice in his middle paragraph:

And once in his third and final paragraph:

These are carefully chosen placements for that word. Indeed, in a speech of only 269 words, to use "nation" five times is very indicative of the importance of this word and concept to the speech, and to Lincoln. He knew that only a single people truly united as a single nation could fight through the war.

Lincoln made it so that people stopped saying "The United States are doing X, Y, Z" and started saying "The United States IS doing X, Y, Z". By telling everyone that this single "nation" will survive the war, the days of "states' rights" were numbered, and the belief in a strong central government for all the various United States became more firmly established.