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Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: April 5, 2007
Byline: Charlene Mires

Commentary: A bell with many meanings

The history of the Liberty Bell illustrates both freedom and its numerous limitations.

The Liberty Bell. USA. First-Class. Forever.

Philadelphia's famously flawed symbol will get a boost next week when the U.S. Postal Service rolls out its new "Forever" stamp, good for first-class postage regardless of future rate increases.

On the stamp, the Liberty Bell does appear to be timeless, a bronze icon of stability with an ethereal glow. The Postal Service calls the bell an "enduring symbol of American independence."

Around the country last week, newspapers joined in this chorus, with Associated Press stories describing the symbol on the stamp as "an icon of American freedom and independence."

And so it is, to many.

George Lippard would be loving this. He was the Philadelphia novelist whose Legends of the American Revolution gave us the story about the Liberty Bell ringing on July 4, 1776, for the Declaration of Independence.

An inspiring story, but fictional, and not written until 1847. More likely, the bell rang to call Philadelphians to the first reading of the Declaration on July 8, 1776. But there is no evidence even of this. It would have been risky business, given the rickety condition of the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House, the building we now call Independence Hall.

Nevertheless, Lippard's story took off, and soon appeared as fact in guidebooks, magazines and schoolbooks. And during the late 19th century, when the bell traveled on open railroad cars for exhibition at world's fairs, it gained a broad popular following as a timeless symbol of freedom.

But it is more.

For the last five years, Philadelphians have grappled with the Liberty Bell's less-celebratory history. The challenge and opportunity came with the discovery that the walkway into the new Liberty Bell Center crossed ground where President George Washington held enslaved people of African descent during the 1790s.

"The Liberty Bell means nothing to me" are words that should echo from the African Americans whose powerful testimony in public meetings assured that their ancestors' history would not be neglected.

These declarations serve as reminders that the Liberty Bell also has a history of ringing hollow for Americans whose liberty has been denied.

Even the name, "The Liberty Bell," came from antislavery activists, who in the 1830s grasped the irony of its inscription: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

When the Liberty Bell traveled the country for exhibition seven times between 1885 and 1915, the cheering crowds did not include an outpouring of celebration by African Americans. In these years, racial oppression and violence were common as the country reunified after the Civil War.

Early in the 20th century, women adopted the Liberty Bell as a symbol of their exclusion. In Pennsylvania in 1915, they commissioned a replica with the inscription "Proclaim Justice" as they campaigned for the right to vote. When the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920, they brought their Justice Bell to Independence Square and rang it for the first time.

During World War II, some Philadelphians wanted to build a special bomb shelter to protect their symbol of liberty. But others, led by the African American banker Richard Robert Wright — a man born in slavery — started "National Freedom Day," to call attention to the continuing struggle for freedom for African Americans. Every Feb. 1, this continuing commemoration includes a wreath-laying at the Liberty Bell.

During the 1960s, college students camped around the Liberty Bell overnight in sympathy with the civil rights struggle in the South. The National Park Service defended their right to do so, explaining to enraged Philadelphians that such an exercise of free speech should be tolerated in Independence Hall.

Today, the Liberty Bell no longer speaks for itself. We have new exhibits around the bell to explain its history to visitors who no longer know. Those exhibits demonstrate that, like the nation, the Liberty Bell has a history that includes both freedom and its limitations.

In Philadelphia, many have struggled over the last five years to see that these entwined stories are understood. They will be prominent in the exhibits now being developed for the site of the President's House.

The Liberty Bell may be "forever," as our new postage stamp declares, but its meaning is not universal. Let us honor its many traditions as we propel our letters throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.

Charlene Mires is associate professor of history at Villanova University

 

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