Return to Home PageThe President's House

In the News index

Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: June 13, 2002
Byline: Editorial

In liberty's shadow

Presenting full history shouldn't delay Bell pavilion.

Turn the Liberty Bell into a symbol that divides Americans? Now, that would take some doing.

Let groups like this week's small band of protesters at Independence Mall continue the public debate over the Liberty Bell and slavery.

But don't halt the work that's properly under way at Independence National Historical Park. That work is about moving ahead, even as the story of American independence is reshaped and tempered by a renewed look at slave-owning founders.

The National Park Service's challenges are two-fold:

Build a spectacular new home for the old statehouse bell at Sixth and Chestnut Streets. The $12.6 million glass-enclosed pavilion debuting next year will frame a memorable view of 18th-century Independence Hall.

At the same time, brainstorm the best way for park rangers and exhibits to explore a troubling historic irony: President George Washington's housing of eight slaves - in Pennsylvania, where slaves were being freed - just beyond the threshold of the pavilion site.

The two initiatives are linked by geography, and much more. The slave quarters stood behind the Robert Morris mansion at Sixth and Market Streets, long gone, where Washington lived as president for 61/2 years.

When the bell was moved from Independence Hall during the 1976 bicentennial, it became a near-neighbor to the site where the Morris mansion once stood. The new pavilion will sit nearer the slave quarters.

Beyond proximity, of course, the Liberty Bell is linked to the nation's painful slavery past by 19th-century abolitionists. They took it as the icon for their struggle, finding hope in the etched words of "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land..."

If anyone doubts that history has the power to stir emotions, recent months' debate over the Washington slave quarters erases them.

When prominent historians in March suggested digging for more artifacts, the pavilion's construction was blasted as a cover-up.

It proved nothing of the kind, since the Park Service undertook thorough archaeological work. Experts now say that construction during the 1850s probably destroyed the site.

As local historian and Morris mansion expert Edward Lawler Jr. wrote in The Inquirer yesterday, "It is likely any trace of the slave quarters was obliterated before the Civil War."

The history of the slaves' lives has not been lost, of course. And the Park Service has embarked upon an impressive effort to interweave it with the story of the bell's tolling for the struggle for independence.

If done right, visiting the newly sited Liberty Bell should provoke greater soul-searching. And the old bell will live up better to its unifying role - of proclaiming liberty "throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants."


Return to Start Page | In the News index

historic documents, declaration, constitution, more