February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
We—the rest of the editorial staff at AMERICAN HERITAGE were pleased and proud to learn,as this issue-went to press, that BruceCatton had just been named by President Ford to receive the nation’s highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom. Given for “meritorious contribution to the…national interest of the United States …” the medal was presented to our distinguished historian and columnist at the White House on January 10.
A round the beginning of the great Bicentennial year a cartoonist got a nationwide chuckle by drawing a sketch of a limitless, totally empty plain somewhere in the western United States. The only thing visible in the vast expanse of unused land was a historical marker, which read:
“On this spot, on July 4, 1776, absolutely nothing happened.”
Coming as it did when everybody was scurrying around desperately trying to find a Revolutionary War thread that could be looped about something in the immediate foreground, this brought forth an amused and tolerant response. It centered attention on one point that tended to be overlooked in all the patriotic fervor: by far the greater part of what we now know as the United States was not in the United States at all when independence was proclaimed. Some of it was under another flag, some of it was under no flag; a great deal of it had never been settled and much of it had not even been explored.
Furthermore, if the soil itself was not then under the brand-new flag, neither were most of the people from whom today’s Americans are descended. The overwhelming majority of us would have to confess, if pressed, that in 1776 our ancestors were somewhere east of the Atlantic—or west of the Pacific. I myself cannot find that any of my forebears came to America before the new nation was a full half century old. (There is one chilling thought: some of my people then lived in Hesse-Cassell, and I suppose I may be related to some of those Hessian mercenaries who gave King George such a bad name during the Revolution.)
It must be said, however, that the Bicentennial was observed with as much enthusiasm west of the Appalachians as east. One of the unexpected and deeply gratifying points about the whole observance was the fact that it brought forth an immense number of small, intimate local histories—accounts of the settling and developing of a specific town, or county, or geographic area; nothing of the profound, weighty kind that makes professional historians so stuffy, just the homely little facts that cluster about the birth and growth of the smallest village. For some reason the intense preoccupation with the American past which grew out of the Bicentennial seemed to flourish with especial luxuriance in precisely those areas that had no direct, visible connection with the actual revolution. It is as if a great many people had said: “Well, of course, there wasn’t anybody here when the Liberty Bell rang, so we can’t write about that; but we can tell how Jacob Wright came up the river by flatboat in 1831 and brought eighty acres of land under cultivation, or how somebody built a grist mill on Cold Creek, or why that settlement over beyond Blue Hill petered out and died along in the ‘eighties.”
These little local histories are by no means out of the direct path that leads from Independence Hall and Yorktown down to the present. They were not grafted onto anything, nor does anyone need to look at them, smile a superior smile, and say: “Oh, yes. How quaint; and really quite interesting, if you have a taste for that sort of thing.” These bits and pieces of hitherto unrecorded history are just as vital a part of the American story as Valley Forge or Saratoga. They are simply the later chapters in a story that was born of dreams and daring and continues down through today by faith and endurance. It began on a village green in Lexington and it continues to what you can see when you look out of your bedroom window.
Which means that the great American story is above all other things a continued story. It did not start with us and it will not end with us, and it is our story even though we became Americans only yesterday. The tremendous story of the Revolution gains in meaning every time the most recent American is stirred to weave his own story into it. None of these Bicentennial observances has been wasted.