How sleep the Brave, who sink to Rest,
By all their Country’s Wishes blest!
When Spring, with dewy Fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallow’d Mould,
She there shall dress a sweeter Sod
Than Fancy’s Feet have ever trod.
By Fairy Hands their knell is rung,
By Forms unseen their Dirge is sung;
There Honour comes, a Pilgrim grey,
To bless the Turf that wraps their Clay,
And Freedom shall a-while repair
To dwell a weeping Hermit there!
Abigail Adams quoted from memory the ode “How Sleep the Brave,” by English poet William Collins, in a letter to her husband John, started on Sunday, June 18, and mailed on Tuesday, June 20, 1775. She had just confirmed reports of the death of their dear friend and family doctor, 34-year-old Joseph Warren. He had fallen “gloriously fighting for his Country,” Abigail wrote, and “Those favorite lines of Collin[s] continually sound in my Ears.”
Warren had died on Saturday, June 17, in what came to be known as the Battle of Bunker Hill, where the British army had driven colonial militia from their positions but suffered heavy losses. He had been a leading patriot since the Stamp Act Crisis 10 years before, when he was just 24. It was he who sent Paul Revere on his famous Midnight Ride. The extralegal Massachusetts Provincial Congress commissioned him as a major general of the militia just a few days before the battle, but he chose to serve as a private soldier and was killed during the third and final British assault. He immediately became a martyr of the Revolution. His death would later be immortalized by John Trumbull in the oil painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill 17 June 1775, a version of which hangs today in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
The Battle of Bunker Hill took place within earshot of the farm in Braintree Massachusetts where Abigail and her four children were living. “The battle began,” she wrote, “Saturday morning about 3 o’clock.” She thought it marked “perhaps the decisive Day . . . on which the fate of America depends.” “The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing,” she said, “that we can not Eat, Drink or Sleep.”
Weeks before, as militia streamed into the area in the wake of the battles of Lexington and Concord, Abigail had collected the family’s pewter dishes and melted them down in a large kettle held over the kitchen fire to make bullets. From time to time, she heard alarms, warning that the Royal Navy was about to land forces along the coast. She had good reason to fear the British would try to seize rebel leaders and their families. Her husband was 400 miles away in Philadelphia as part of the Massachusetts delegation to the Second Continental Congress. Six weeks earlier, he had written Abigail from Connecticut: “I am often concerned for you and our dear Babes. . . . In Case of real Danger . . . fly to the Woods with our Children.”
It’s hard in easygoing times to imagine what it could mean to face such an extremity: a mother forced to contemplate fleeing into the forest with her four children, pursued by hostile armies. It is hard to imagine being the husband hundreds of miles away writing such a letter to his wife or the wife reading such a letter from her husband. But Abigail Adams possessed all the self-reliance and courage that John’s letter counted on her to have—come what may.
“I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of Warren a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me.”
—John Quincy Adams
Far from fleeing to the woods, early on the Saturday morning of the battle, Abigail took her seven-year-old son and climbed to the top of Penn’s Hill to get a closer look. From there, the two could see fire and smell the smoke from houses burning in Charlestown. Seventy-one years later, after an illustrious career as a diplomat and a term as sixth president of the United States, and still serving as an active member of Congress, her son vividly remembered that day. In a draft of a letter, he wrote, “I saw with my own eyes those fires, and heard Britannia’s thunders in the Battle of Bunker’s hill and witnessed the tears of my mother and mingled with them my own, at the fall of Warren a dear friend of my father, and a beloved Physician to me.” In that same letter, he repeated from memory the ode his mother had quoted to her husband in the letter she wrote 71 years before, when “the fate of America” hung in the balance. Back in that spring and summer of 1775, when he was just seven years old and the War for Independence swirled around him and his family, John Quincy Adams remembered, “[my mother] taught me to repeat daily after the Lord’s prayer [the Ode of Collins] before rising from bed.”
“How sleep the brave?” Something like Abigail Adams slept, I should think.
A few years after the War for Independence was won, when America was deliberating over a new Constitution, James Madison reflected in Federalist 55 that “there are . . . qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence,” and that “[r]epublican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form.” Human beings are not brave by nature, but it is human nature to be capable of becoming brave, and of acquiring all the other virtues, through habit that molds enduring character. Republican government—self-government or free government—does the greatest honor to human nature by regarding human beings as capable of acquiring all the moral and intellectual virtues needed to rule themselves. Bravery or courage is the first or most fundamental virtue free government requires of its citizens. It is indispensable for all that follows.
America could not have become a self-governing republic—could not have assumed among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitled us—without the courage of Joseph Warren and the thousands after him gloriously fighting and dying for a “country” that was still an aspiration. In national memory, the young Nathan Hale would become representative of American patriots who offered and gave their lives that their country might be born. We all know—or used to know—the story. Nathan Hale was a 21-year-old Connecticut boy in 1776. He was serving in the Continental Army during the American War of Independence. George Washington needed someone to spy on British troop movements behind enemy lines in New York. Nathan Hale volunteered for that job. He was captured by the British. The penalty for espionage was death by hanging, and he was hanged. On his way to the scaffold, Hale spoke the words that every generation of Americans since has been able to quote, as Abigail Adams and John Quincy Adams could quote the Collins Ode: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
America will always need Nathan Hales and Joseph Warrens. Every country does.
America will always need Nathan Hales and Joseph Warrens. Every country does. America will always need citizens willing to give, in Abraham Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “the last full measure of devotion” for their country’s cause. If you are an immigrant seeking citizenship in the United States today, you must take an oath of naturalization, part of which involves a pledge that you will bear arms if necessary in defense of the Constitution of the United States. This means you have to be willing to be a Joseph Warren, a Nathan Hale. Native citizens live under the obligation of the same oath, even if we don’t explicitly take it. Each of us is pledged to all, and all are pledged to each, to defend our lives and liberties as Americans when needed.
In every generation, it has been so far a small percentage of our citizens who must offer and give the last full measure of devotion for our country. These are usually young. They used to be young men only; now, of course, they are young men and women. How can the rest of us—the vast majority—properly honor such sacrifices? How can we be worthy of them?
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery can teach us something about that, and about how it benefits us the living to honor those who have given their lives for us. Inscribed in capital letters on the western façade of the Tomb are the words: HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD. More than 4 million visitors come to the cemetery every year from across America and around the world. Unless they have their own personal visit to make, what they most want to do is to climb the hill to the high ground of the Memorial Amphitheater and visit the Tomb.
The American Civil War brought forth Arlington National Cemetery, on land belonging once to George Washington’s family and later to Robert E. Lee’s. More Americans died in that war than in all America’s other wars combined, and the first soldier buried at Arlington was Private William Christman, on May 13, 1864. The Great War, later tragically to become known as World War I, brought forth the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The American Expeditionary Force that fought in the Great War in 1917 and 1918 lost more than 116,000 troops.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier touches visitors so deeply, in part, because it prompts a realization that the experience and sacrifice of all fallen soldiers must in some ways always be unknown to us—though they are not unknown to God.
Identification tags were a relatively recent introduction of modern warfare, but still almost 2,000 fallen American troops remained unidentified. One of those unidentified troops was selected for burial at Arlington, with solemn ceremony, on what was then still called Armistice Day, three years to the day after the war ended—November 11, 1921. The Tomb’s sarcophagus that we see today standing above the grave was completed and unveiled to the public in 1932. It is made of marble from the same quarry in Colorado that provided the marble for the Lincoln Memorial.
To the west of the Tomb, white marble slabs flush with the plaza mark crypts for an unknown soldier from World War II and another from the Korean War. As we know well today, advances in technology over the years made being unknown more and more difficult. So for the Vietnam War there is a third marble slab, over an empty crypt, inscribed with the words, “Honoring and Keeping Faith with America’s Missing Servicemen, 1958-1975.” The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier touches visitors so deeply, in part, because it prompts a realization that the experience and sacrifice of all fallen soldiers must in some ways always be unknown to us—though they are not unknown to God.
At midnight on July 2, 1937, the Army began to maintain a constant guard over the Tomb. On April 6, 1948, these duties were assumed by the 3rd U.S. Infantry, known as “The Old Guard,” the oldest active-duty infantry unit in the Army. Since that day, 24 hours a day, every day of the year, in all weathers, The Old Guard has maintained its vigil. This sacred duty is carried out by the most specialized and famous platoon of The Old Guard, known as Sentinels of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who served at Arlington with The Old Guard between combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has written a good book about their history called Sacred Duty. He tells the story of the young soldiers of The Old Guard, “who dedicate themselves to [the] sacred duty of honoring those who have served and died for the nation.” The movie Taking Chance gives an idea of what carrying out this duty looks like.
The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier happens every hour on the hour from October through March, and every half hour from April through September. It is the most visible manifestation of the sacred duty of honoring our fallen heroes. With exquisite precision and unbroken attention to detail, the Sentinels aim to make that ceremony perfect every time. They want to hold themselves to the ultimate standard by which men can be judged, because nothing less can begin to honor adequately the ultimate sacrifice they are there to honor.
This is their undying gift to us. To be worthy of their bravery and the bravery of all our Abigail Adamses takes all the wisdom and virtue a man or woman could hope to possess.
For the millions of Americans and foreigners who visit the Tomb each year, especially the young, the Changing of the Guard offers profound moral and political instruction. And what makes the ritual ceremony so powerful for visitors to see is that, in a vital sense, the visitors don’t matter. The Sentinels are most devoted to achieving perfection when they are not seen—when their precision, their attention to every detail, their concentration on the high purpose of honoring the fallen into eternity, is known but to God.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, America’s greatest speech, was a dedication of the soldiers’ cemetery at Gettysburg, months after the great battle fought there. It teaches how we the living are blessed to be dedicated to the unfinished work of all the Joseph Warrens and Nathan Hales and the thousands buried unnamed who gave the last full measure of devotion for the cause of freedom. We honor their memory by our increased devotion to their noble cause. This is their undying gift to us. To be worthy of their bravery and the bravery of all our Abigail Adamses takes all the wisdom and virtue a man or woman could hope to possess. Like the Sentinels of the Tomb, Lincoln teaches us that to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we need only hold ourselves to the ultimate standard in all we do—even when it is known but to God.
This essay originally appeared in RealClearPublicAffairs.