Montana Viewpoint
June 25, 2007

The tomb of the Unknown Soldier of the American Revolution in Philadelphia’s Washington Square is a small and unassuming monument. There is a plain stone tablet laid flat on the ground on which is written simply, “Beneath this stone rests a soldier of Washington’s army who died to give you liberty.”

Behind the tablet is an eternal flame, beyond that a statue of General Washington, and beyond the statue a wall on which is written, “Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness.”

Unlike many others in Philadelphia, it’s not an old monument. It was erected in 1954 in one of the five public squares laid out by William Penn in his city plan. For many years the square served as a pauper’s graveyard and in the Revolutionary war became a mass grave for Colonial soldiers who died from their wounds or from the smallpox, which ran rampant through the camps.

Later, when the British held Philadelphia, it became a dumping ground for the bodies of Colonial prisoners of war held and brutally mistreated at nearby Walnut Street Jail.

This July 4th we will probably not dwell much on Washington or on the war that gave us liberty, and we will dwell even less on those unknown soldiers who won it for us.

History’s not fair. It rewards the famous and the infamous with recognition and gives the workers and foot soldiers passing thanks, if any at all. But without the men and women who toiled at their labors, the famous would have little to be famous for, and America would be a far different place.

One of my favorite speeches was given by former Governor Ted Schwinden at the ceremony marking Montana’s centennial in 1989. I was lucky enough to be present, and although I don’t remember the exact words the meaning has stuck with me and comes swiftly back to mind whenever I see an old abandoned cabin or some other marking of someone long gone from this Earth.

“The true heroes of Montana lie buried in the graveyards of towns with names like: Gold Butte, Tuscor, Locate, Cleveland.” That’s close enough to what Schwinden said for my purposes, because it serves to remind me of his point.

We who were gathered on the Capitol steps and those who spoke at the ceremony were people who got their names in the paper. What we needed to remember was that Montana was built by anonymous men and women who worked countless hours to make a better life for themselves and in the process made, and became a part of, the fabric which is Montana. Those towns are long gone now, and the people and the memories of the mark they made on Montana are gone as well.

But they made their mark, and however insignificant it may have been, Montana would somehow be a different place without it, and so would America.

In my mind all those people and events are really very important and I would like to know even a little about their lives; their trials, their failures and successes, and their dreams.

Tha’’s impossible, of course, and it’s my loss. But what is possible is to remember them in the context of what we have today; a state and a nation inspired by their dreams, built with their labor, sustained by the taxes they paid, and left better for their having lived.

So this July Fourth, between the hot dogs and potato salad, give a passing thought to those who built the foundation on which you stand; those anonymous soldiers and sailors, laborers and cowboys, store clerks and prairie women—all the countless men and women who, in no matter how small a way, made our native land our home.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620