On January 13, 1777 future President John Adams went for a walk in Philadelphia. He was, at the time, a delegate to the Continental Congress. After returning to his lodgings he wrote:
"I have spent an hour this morning in the Congregation of the dead. I took a walk into the 'Potter's Field,' a burying ground between the new stone prison and the hospital, and I never in my whole life was affected with so much melancholy. The graves of the soldiers, who have been buried, in this ground, from the hospital and bettering-house, during the course of last summer, fall and winter, dead of the small pox and camp diseases, are enough to make the heart of stone to melt away! The sexton told me that upwards of two thousand soldiers had been buried there, and by the appearance of the grave and trenches, it is most probable to me that he speaks within bounds. To what causes this plague is to be attributed, I don't know--disease had destroyed ten men for us where the sword of the enemy has killed one!"
Philadelphia's recently defaced Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is not a memorial for George Washington (though it is located in Washington Square). It is a memorial for the two or maybe three thousand penniless soldiers who are buried there in mass graves. Each was fighting for freedom at a time when a better understanding of freedom and equality was only just dawning on humanity. The evident majority who died of smallpox suffered more than most modern people can comprehend. They died for the principle that "all men are created equal" (the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776) and so that we might have the right "peaceably to assemble" and to "petition the Government for redress of grievances (the 1st Amendment, written in 1791).
"Black lives matter" has essentially the same meaning as "all men are created equal." Both are true statements. The newer slogan, however, is also a Declaration that the "arc of history" has farther to bend until it achieves justice. That is also true. Ask any member of "Mother Emanuel" AME Church in Charleston or the families of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
We have a better understanding of freedom and equality today than America's founding generation had. But you have to walk before you can run, and the men buried in Washington Square were among the very first common people on Earth to walk upright and proudly in defense of human and civil rights. Today, most of the world is still trying to catch up.
We can't let up now, however. We have farther to go.
Read More: "The Tragedy of Henry Laurens" (August 1, 2019)
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is researching the history of the Revolutionary War's 8th Virginia Regiment. Its ten companies formed on the frontier, from the Cumberland Gap to Pittsburgh.
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