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Frederick Douglass's Classic 1871 Decoration Day Speech

Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day, an occasion to honor the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. Douglass' 1871 speech may be the greatest-ever address associated with this occasion.


Frederick Douglass (Library of Congress). (Library of Congress)


Today is Memorial Day, when we honor members of the armed forces who have fallen in battle. Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day, an occasion to honor soldiers who died in the Civil War. Frederick Douglass's 1871 Decoration Day speech, delivered at Arlington National Cemetery, may be the greatest-ever address associated with this occasion. In the process, he also offered valuable thoughts on how we should remember the Civil War. Check it out! Here's an excerpt:

Dark and sad will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors. The offering we bring to-day is due alike to the patriot soldiers dead and their noble comrades who still live; for, whether living or dead, whether in time or eternity, the loyal soldiers who imperiled all for country and freedom are one and inseparable….

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation's life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. 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….

The essence and significance of our devotions here to-day are not to be found in the fact that the men whose remains fill these graves were brave in battle. If we met simply to show our sense of bravery, we should find enough on both sides to kindle admiration….

But we are not here to applaud manly courage, save as it has been displayed in a noble cause. We must never forget that victory to the rebellion meant death to the republic….  [I]f now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage…, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.

The Decoration Day speech is just one of several Douglas speeches that deserve to be better-known. I gave a few other examples here.