Guest Commentary: Presidents reflect on Memorial Day’s meaning


Dr. Samuel B. Hoff, a Dover resident, is a George Washington Distinguished Professor Emeritus of history and political science at Delaware State University.

Memorial Day commemorates those in the military who made the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of America. The original tribute began as Decoration Day in the late 1860s, on behalf of Civil War soldiers who died in battle. It gradually became known as Memorial Day.

While held May 30 from 1868-1970, it was changed to the last Monday in May and declared a federal holiday, starting in 1971. Below are quotations by presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Joe Biden on the meaning of the occasion.

“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.” — Abraham Lincoln

“For love of country they accepted death.” — James Garfield

“A cause worth fighting for is worth fighting for to the end.” — Grover Cleveland

“I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it.” — Benjamin Harrison

“They reflect by their heroic and gallant struggles the highest credit upon themselves and the government which they faithfully served.” — William McKinley

“Remember, you will be blessed with spending the day with friends and family, an opportunity created through a sacrifice by others before you.” — Theodore Roosevelt

“We must dare to be great, and we must realize that greatness is the fruit of toil and sacrifice and high courage.” — William Taft

“There is no immortality that is safer than theirs.” — Woodrow Wilson

“Yes, we are met in memory of the fallen, but I cannot escape the thought that the real compensation comes to the living.” — Warren Harding

“Decoration Day is our best solemn national holiday, which ought to be observed with impressive ceremony.” — Calvin Coolidge

“Here, men endured that a nation might live.” — Herbert Hoover

“Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as we enjoy forget in time that men died to win them.” — Franklin Roosevelt

“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid.” — Harry Truman

“Whereas this day has traditionally been devoted to paying homage to loved ones who lie in hallowed graves throughout the land, having sacrificed their lives that war might end.” — Dwight Eisenhower

“The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.” — John Kennedy

“On this Memorial Day, it is right for us to remember the living and the dead, for whom the call of their country has meant so much pain and sacrifice.” — Lyndon Johnson

“Peace is the real and right memorial for those who have died in war.” — Richard Nixon

“There is no higher honor or more solemn privilege than to represent our nation in paying tribute to its honored dead.” — Gerald Ford

“The greatest honor we can pay those who have given their lives in our Nation’s defense is to serve the ideals for which they died.” — Jimmy Carter

“You all knew that some things are worth dying for.” — Ronald Reagan

“Each of the patriots whom we remember on this day was first a beloved son or daughter, a brother or sister, or a spouse, friend, and neighbor.” — George Bush

“Yes, America has made your sacrifice matter.” — Bill Clinton

“All Americans and every free nation on Earth can trace their liberty to the white markers of places like Arlington National Cemetery.” — George W. Bush

“They, and we, are the legacies of an unbroken chain of proud men and women who served their country with honor; who waged war so that we might know peace; who braved hardship so that we might know opportunity; who paid the ultimate price so that we might know freedom.” — Barack Obama

“I stand before you at this noble fortress of liberty to pay tribute to the immortal souls who fought and died to keep us free.” — Donald Trump

“We must remember the price that was paid for our liberties.” — Joe Biden

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