Alexandria, Virginia. -- Everybody knows the Fourth of July story. Thomas Jefferson and company gathered in Philadelphia in 1776 to declare America's independence from Great Britain. Thanks to George Washington, the colonies won the Revolutionary War and a new nation was born. Or so the story goes.
But there is a missing chapter in this narrative. Who were the every-day people who believed Jefferson's words and like him ++ were willing to risk their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor? Who were the people -- men and women -- who followed Washington to war, and what kind of America were they fighting for? Traditional history tends to overlook these questions in its addiction to the stories of great men, yet it is ordinary Americans who made history possible. Indeed, what makes America great is not merely great men, but great people.
The America we celebrate today was not created by Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in July of 1776. Before Jefferson set pen to paper, the citizens of Malden, Massachusetts, issued their own independence resolution that May. Rivaling Jefferson in eloquence, the townspeople of Malden declared:
"Unjustifiable claims have been made by the king and his minions to tax us without our consent. . . . We long entertained hope that the spirit of the British nation would once more induce them to assert their own and our rights. . . . We hoped in vain; they have lost their love of freedom; they have lost their spirit of just resentment. We therefore renounce with disdain our connection with a kingdom of slaves; we bid a final adieu to Britain."
Even more poignant was the petition from the slaves of Massachusetts to their state legislature in 1777. Echoing Jefferson's words, they declared that they "have in common with all other men a natural and unalienable right to . . . freedom." They went on to note that just as the colonies had repeatedly petitioned Great Britain, so had the slaves themselves repeatedly petitioned the Massachusetts legislature -- and with equal success.
The slaves stated their "astonishment that it has never been considered that every principle from which America has acted in the course of their unhappy difficulties with Great Britain pleads stronger than a thousand arguments in favor of your petitioners." They proposed that Massachusetts abolish slavery so that its citizens could not be accused "of acting themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in others."
From the outset, ordinary people decried America's great contradiction -- proclaiming liberty for all while practicing slavery. Yet this is the epitome of the American spirit: slaves could insist ,, that they were included in the Declaration of Independence, just as the colonists could affirm their equality with kings. And slaves would continue to keep faith in this ideal, despite the limited vision of America's great men.
Let us remember, too, that the battle for America was not won by George Washington alone. It was won by people like James Sullivan Martin, a Connecticut private who suffered greatly during the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge. Martin was definitely not included in Thomas Paine's criticism of "the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot."
With a mixture of pathos and wry wit, Martin described a Continental thanksgiving ordered by Congress in which his ration consisted of one-fourth cup of rice and a tablespoon of vinegar. After a tentmate's failed attempt to supplement the meal by stealing beef hocks from the commissary, Martin was forced to "go home and make out my supper as usual, upon a leg of nothing and no turnips."
Another rainy-day patriot was Sarah Osborn, one of thousands of "camp followers" -- women who traveled with the revolutionary army, cooking and cleaning for the soldiers. She accompanied her husband, who had enlisted without her consent. In a deposition to qualify for his pension, she described her role in the siege of Yorktown, the final battle of the revolution.
"I cooked and carried in beef, bread and coffee (in a gallon pot) to the soldiers in the entrenchment," she said. "On one occasion when I was thus employed in carrying in provisions," she added, "I met General Washington, who asked me if I 'was not afraid of the cannonballs?' I replied, . . . 'It would not do for the men to fight and starve, too.' "
James Sullivan Martin also had vivid memories of Yorktown. Now a sergeant, he helped dig trenches for the final siege. He, too, encountered Washington when the general rode among the troops. But his most precious recollection was of the signal to begin firing on the British. He wrote:
"I was in the trenches the day that the batteries were to be opened; all were upon tiptoe of expectation and impatience to see the signal given to open the whole line of batteries, which was to be the hoisting of the American flag in the 10-gun battery. About noon the much-wished-for signal went up. I confess I felt a secret pride swell my heart when I saw the 'star-spangled banner' waving majestically in the very faces of our implacable adversaries; it appeared like an omen of success to our enterprise, and so it proved in reality."
To James Sullivan Martin and Sarah Osborn and the slaves of Massachusetts, history was not remote and far-off; they were living it. That's an important lesson for Americans today. From the beginning, the power of the American idea endured not merely because it was promoted by great men, but because it took root among every-day people.
And for that idea of liberty to prevail, each of us as citizens must be willing to claim our place in history, however small. The American story depends on us.
Linda R. Monk is the editor of "Ordinary Americans: U.S. History Through the Eyes of Everyday People" (Close Up Publishing;
distributed by Scorpio Press, 1-800-356-9315).