Veterans and Our Debt to History

As Americans, we inherit what Lincoln in his First Inaugural called “the mystic chords of memory stretching from every patriot grave.” They bind us to the great and the humble, the known and the unknown of Americans past—and if I hear them clearly, what they say is that although we may have strayed, we have not strayed too far to return, for we are their descendants. We can still astound the world with justice, reason and strength. I know this is true, but even if it was not we could not in decency stand down, if only for our debt to history. We owe a debt to those who came before, who did great things, and suffered more than we suffer, and gave more than we give, and pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for us, whom they did not know. For we “drink from wells we did not dig” and are “warmed by fires we did not build,” and so we must be faithful in our time as they were in theirs.

Many great generations are gone, but by the character and memory of their existence they forbid us to despair of the republic. I see them crossing the prairies in the sun and wind. I see their faces looking out from steel mills and coal mines, and immigrant ships crawling into the harbors at dawn. I see them at war, at work and at peace. I see them, long departed, looking into the camera, with hopeful and sad eyes. And I see them embracing their children, who became us. They are our family and our blood, and we cannot desert them. In spirit, all of them come down to all of us, in a connection that, out of love, we cannot betray.

They are silent now and forever, but from the eternal silence of every patriot grave there is yet an echo that says, “It is not too late; keep faith with us, keep faith with God, and do not, do not ever despair of the republic.”

The preceding is an excerpt from a speech delivered on the Hillsdale College campus on September 20, 2010, reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.