I hope you had a good Father's Day weekend. If you're unfamiliar with the origins of the observance, you might suspect it's an idea that was hatched in Kansas City by the folks at Hallmark to sell more greeting cards. Here at RealClearPolitics, we know our U.S. history, however, which means that we know Hallmark had nothing to do with it. We honor the loving daughter who actually came up with the idea, as well as her father, a Civil War veteran who made it to the 20th century and has been interred for the last 100 years in a quiet cemetery in Spokane, Wash.
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Mother's Day, as I've discussed before in this space, not only has its antecedents in the 19th century, but in the Civil War itself, thanks to a Virginian named Ann Jarvis. When the government in Richmond seceded from the United States, Jarvis found herself living in a new state, West Virginia, and in a community with divided loyalties. Her instincts were toward nurturing not combat. Before the war, she'd organized "Mothers' Day Work Clubs" to address local health needs; when the carnage began, she urged the clubs to stay neutral to the point of providing medical care and solace to mothers on each side.
Ann Jarvis certainly knew the pain of losing a child. Eight of her 12 children never reached adulthood. Lee's surrender at Appomattox brought an end to the bloodshed, but not the grief. In the summer of 1865, she organized a "Mothers' Friendship Day" on the grounds of the Taylor County courthouse where families from both sides gathered, many to mourn lost sons.
When she died in 1905, her daughter Anna, living in Philadelphia, vowed to keep the tradition alive. She made it a national cause, and by 1914 President Woodrow Wilson had signed a joint resolution of Congress designating the second Sunday in May as Mother's Day.
Among those who took note was Sonora Smart Dodd, although the parent she believed was deserving of recognition was her dear old dad, William Jackson Smart, a widower who had answered the call of fatherhood with the same sense of duty he had as a soldier. Actually, even more, as you'll see in a moment.
Sonora was 16 when her mother, Ellen, died in childbirth in 1898, leaving Sonora and her five brothers in the care of a single dad. He never wavered. "He was both father and mother to me and my brothers and sisters," Sonora recalled. She used the plural "sisters" because Ellen Smart was a widow who had three children of her own before marrying a second time. William Smart took care of them, too. Oh, and William Smart had five grown children from his first marriage, to a woman who also died young. By all accounts he was a loving father to that brood as well.
So you might imagine how Sonora Smart Dodd (by then married herself) felt as she sat (with her father) in a Methodist church pew in 1909 at an early Mother's Day service. She resolved to do something about the disparity, and she succeeded, too. The following year, Spokane held its first Father's Day commemoration. Sonora chose June, instead of May, because her father's birthday was that month. Today, it is a matter of Father's Day lore that it took far longer -- 62 years, to be exact -- for Sonora Dodd to achieve what Anna Jarvis did in a short period of time. But that's hardly the full story.
Yes, it wasn't until 1972 that President Richard Nixon made the third Sunday in June an official part of the national calendar, but Lyndon Johnson had signed a similar proclamation in 1966; Sen. Margaret Chase Smith had introduced such legislation in 1957 (while delivering a spirited speech on behalf of fatherhood); and Calvin Coolidge signed a presidential edict in 1924 urging the states to recognize fathers. "The widespread observance of this occasion is calculated," Coolidge wrote with his typically taciturn Yankee reserve, "to establish more intimate relations between fathers and their children and to impress upon fathers the full measure of their obligations."
Even Woodrow Wilson sanctioned the idea of Father's Day, first in 1913 and then in 1916 in an election year trip to Spokane. So this was never a competition between Mother's Day and Father's Day. One begat the other, if you'll forgive the pun.
Likewise, the life story of the father who inspired Father's Day is a testament to national unity. If you clicked on my first link above to William Jackson Smart you'll notice that his 1919 obituary in the local newspaper notes that he was born in Arkansas, while celebrating his service in "the Grand Army of the Republic." This was "Mr. Lincoln's Army," of course, so how did an Arkansan born in 1842 come to serve in it?
There's a story there, too. The short version is that William Smart was first pressed into service in the Confederate Army. He was captured early in the war by Union troops, who detected a lack of passion for the "Lost Cause" and gave him a choice: spend the rest of the war in a stockade or joint the U.S. Army. He made the right call, and because he did so, every year at this time millions of American fathers get neckties they won't want and affectionate hugs and cards they do want. What they also get -- and what they cherish most -- is hearing the magic words "I love you, Dad."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.