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The President's House in Philadelphia

For Whom Will the Liberty Bell Toll? From Controversy to Collaboration

Gary B. Nash
Christ Church, Philadelphia, January 25, 2003

Next to the National History Standards controversy of 1994-96, the dust-up over the new Liberty Bell Pavilion that will open next July 4 in Philadelphia has been the most exciting and rewarding public history controversy of my career. These two disputes are not exactly parallel since the Liberty Bell affair started in Philadelphia and remained a Philadelphia story; and the National History Standards affected classroom teaching rather than public history as practiced by National Park Service rangers. But in both cases, we are talking about how young learners — and the public in general — will remember the past and learn from it in ways that bear on how we think of ourselves as Americans and how we present ourselves to millions of foreign visitors. The Liberty Bell controversy, which began a year ago, had a painful beginning but appears to be nearing a productive ending that will please most Philadelphians. Some public squabbles waste time and bring about no lasting good. This controversy has been different.

As many of you know, the controversy centers on how Independence National Historical Park will present the Liberty Bell in its new pavilion arising at the southeast corner of 6th and Market Streets. Much was at stake here, and nobody knew it better than the superintendent and staff at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park. They see several million people from home and abroad troop past the Liberty Bell and neighboring Independence Hall each year. Philadelphia, after all, is one of the premier sites of our heritage, a kind of beacon attracting people to find links between the past and the present. But what do visitors hear from Park Service rangers these days, and what will they see as they gaze at what has become one of the nation's most memorable icons — a two thousand pound piece of unstable mixed metals molded 250 years ago that has achieved an almost global reach as a symbol of freedom and human rights? Now, with $12.6 million to spend and a new chance to rethink just what the Liberty Bell meant at different points in its history and what it means today, INHP shoulders a weighty responsibility — and enjoys a rare opportunity.

What has added to the drama in presenting the Liberty Bell anew is the chunk of real estate upon which the new pavilion is being erected. The site is where the widow of William Masters, mighty merchant and Philadelphia mayor in the 1750s, erected a fine mansion in about 1767-68. As it turns out, Masters was probably Philadelphia's largest slaveowner; in 1761, his probated estate listed the names of 34 slaves of African descent. Some of them may have helped build the house. In 1772, Widow Masters gifted the mansion to her daughter Polly, after she married Richard Penn, grandson of William Penn. Polly and Richard Penn were also slaveowners, but on a small scale. The mansion's next occupant, shortly after the Revolution erupted, was Sir William Howe, the British general leading the army that occupied Philadelphia from September 1777 to June 1778. After Howe's recall, Sir Henry Clinton moved in and, like Howe, his enslaved Africans toiled on this site. After the British decamped, Benedict Arnold arrived to declare martial law and occupy the Masters-Penn mansion. Two enslaved Africans were among his household retinue of seven. Then in 1781, Robert Morris, financier of the American Revolution as he has been called, purchased the house and began to reconstruct it, probably with the labor of his several slaves, not including Hero, who had fled to the British just before they took the city. Thus, for the entire revolutionary period, the lives of the free and unfree mingled intimately on this piece of Philadelphia.

The rebuilding of the Masters-Penn House made it suitable quarters for George and Martha Washington after the nation's capital moved from New York to Philadelphia in 1790. But some alterations were needed, especially for sheltering a household staff of about thirty — a mixed lot of white indentured servants and enslaved African Americans. Through the work of Ed Lawler, an urban archaeologist and architectural historian, who had been writing a history of the Morris mansion and its use by Washington, we know that each day the thousands of visitors at the Liberty Bell Pavilion will be walking directly over the "Servants Hall," as it was called, over the smokehouse, over the octagon icehouse, and over the added slave quarters apparently built by Washington with Robert Morris's consent. After the Washingtons decamped for Mt. Vernon, John and Abigail Adams became the new tenants at what was becoming known as the President's House.. For nearly seven years, George Washington and the first lady occupied the Morris House, and no day went by without the services provided by the indentured servants and slaves who prepared the meals, cleaned the mansion, drove the coaches, managed the horses, tended the fireplaces and hauled the ashes, and performed countless other tasks indispensable to running the executive office efficiently and graciously. Like their well-to-do owners, these men and women had emotions, ideas, spiritual yearnings, hopes and fears, and family commitments; and they too had agendas to pursue and thoughts of improving their condition. They speak to us as much as Martha and George about what it meant to live in Philadelphia at the center of the new American republic, though obviously history had dictated that they carried out their lives at very different social levels.

They speak to us, however, only if we give them voice. Here are two stories that have come, as it were, from underground — stories about life at 6th and Market streets, stories that have found their way neither into the history books nor into the national consciousness, stories that we Philadelphians can tell in all the maturity of our 21st-century democracy — if only we will tell these stories as few other societies would dare to tell. Oney Judge, born of a Mount Vernon enslaved seamstress and sired by white indentured white servant from Leeds, England, had served Martha Washington since 1784, when the young mixed race girl was about ten years of age. Martha Washington brought her to Philadelphia in 1790 when Oney was sixteen. Six years later, in 1796, her privileged position in the Washington household notwithstanding, she fled the President's mansion just before the Washingtons were scheduled to return to Mt. Vernon for summer recess. Her days of helping the First Lady dress and powder up for levees and state functions, running errands for her, and accompanying her on visits to the wives of other political and diplomatic leaders were now at an end. Many years later she recalled to a journalist of Granite Freedom, a New Hampshire abolitionist paper, "I had friends among the colored people of Philadelphia, had my things carried there [to a waiting ship] before hand, and left while [the Washingtons] were at dinner."

The Washingtons railed at the ingratitude of Oney Judge fleeing slavery — "without the least provocation," as Washington wrote. This comment allows us to see that what Oney called her "thirst for compleat freedom" did not register with the president The Washingtons sent agents after her, to cuff her and bring her back or bargain her into returning. Hunted down, Oney sent word that, if guaranteed freedom, she would return out of affection for the Washington family. The first family refused. With several hundred of their enslaved Africans at stake, they feared that rewarding her flight from slavery with a grant of freedom would set "a dangerous precedent." At that, Oney Judge swore she "should rather suffer death than return to Slavery."[Morgan 8; Gerson writeup] When Washington persisted, his agent in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, reported in September 1796 that "popular opinion here is in favor of universal freedom," which made it difficult for him to seize and shackle Oney. Two years later, the furious Washington family was still trying to snag Martha's ingrate chambermaid by sending George's nephew, Burwell Bassett, after her. Not until Washington's death in 1799 could Oney feel some measure of safety. By now she was married, had a baby, and had put roots down in New Hampshire.

Just as the site on which the new Liberty Bell Pavilion is now rising was a stage for a personal declaration of independence by a 22 year old enslaved woman, it became so again nine months later, just as the Washingtons were leaving Philadelphia to take up life as private citizens on their beloved Mt. Vernon plantation. To the Washingtons, Hercules enjoyed a special status in the executive mansion, one that in their view should have made him immune to the fever for freedom. As their prize cook, he had prepared countless state dinners for a number of years. But Hercules, like Oney Judge, had mingled with numerous free black Philadelphians, who by this time had built two churches of their own, started schools and mutual aid societies, carved out niches in the urban economy, even purchased homes, and began mounting attacks on the fortress of slavery. Hercules slipped away from the president's house, melted into the countryside, and outwitted all of Washington's attempts to capture him. When a visitor to Mount Vernon asked Hercules' 6-year old daughter whether she was disconsolate at the prospect of never seeing her father again, she replied "Oh sir! I am very glad because he is free now." [Morgan, 10] All of Washington's fears, since his first arrival in Philadelphia, had now been realized. He wrote his secretary Tobias Lear in 1791, that he did not think his slaves "would be benefited" by achieving freedom, "yet the idea of freedom might be too great a temptation to resist," and breathing the free air of Philadelphia, where the pesky Quakers tried to help enslaved Pennsylvanians break their shackles, might "make them insolent in a state of slavery." Near the end of his presidency, and grating at Oney Judge's flight, he ordered his secretary to get his slaves back to Mt. Vernon. "I wish to have it accomplished under a pretext that may deceive both them and the public," he wrote. "I request that these sentiments and this advice may be known to none but yourself and Mrs. Washington."

Site and symbol, freedom and slavery, black and white, upstairs and downstairs: how should the National Park Service explain the Liberty Bell and the site it occupies to the swarming visitors who will come to venerate the bell? A year ago, I had an inkling that the Liberty Bell story line, as it had been devised by INHP over several years, would be simplistic and vainglorious and that the piece of history-soaked land the bell will now occupy would be ignored. Philadelphia's NPR station, WHYY, had interviewed me on December 5, 2001 by hookup in Los Angeles, and having read Ed Lawler's account of the eight slaves from Mt. Vernon who had served the first family at this site for nearly seven years (soon to be published in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography), I mentioned that it would be a misfortune to perpetuate the historical amnesia about the founding fathers and slavery at the Liberty Bell venue. But the alarm bell I tried to ring had no effect whatever. I had not read the script written by INPH, nor did I know that they were moving ahead at flank speed to get bids to construct the new exhibits. That became apparent when I returned to Philadelphia on March 12, 2002 to give a talk on First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory, published by University of Pennsylvania Press a few months before.

After reaching Philadelphia, I called the Chief of Interpretation at INHP to ask what visitors would learn about the history of the president's house, its many illustrious tenants, and their slaves and servants? Not much, he replied. The interpretative plan had been researched for several years, scholarly and public input had been solicited, and the decision had been made to keep the focus squarely on the Liberty Bell and its venerable history. Drawing attention to the site on which the new pavilion was being built, he explained, would confuse the public and divert attention from the Bell. I objected that the Liberty Bell meant many things to many people, among them slaves for whom the biblical inscription on the bell — "Proclaim liberty throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof" — surely had a hollow ring. Were not liberty and unfreedom locked together in deadly embrace? Wasn't the liberty of some built on the enslavement of others? Whether true or not, he replied, "the train has left the station" — a metaphor that has become the standard rationale for those who do not want to entertain dissenting views. We are out of time, out of money, and the interpretive plan was put before the public with plenty of opportunity for comment and criticism, explained the Chief of Interpretation. Would the public hear not a word about how they were walking over the slave quarters Washington built as they approached the entrance of the Liberty Bell Pavilion? Would they learn nothing about how they were stepping in the footprints of Richard Penn, Benedict Arnold, Sir William Howe, Robert Morris, Abigail Adams, and a host of others? The most I could eke from him was a half-promise to consider a wayside panel out on Market Street that would note that this was the site of the Masters-Morris house that became the executive mansion of our first two presidents.

Muttering to myself as I walked to the old Friends Meetinghouse at 4th and Arch to give a talk on First City, a book about the contest for public memory that had agitated Philadelphia for generations, I pondered whether my concluding chapter, titled "Restoring Memory," was too optimistic. I mused about how "the property in history has been redistributed as collecting institutions have broadened their vision about what is collectible and as the access to the means of producing stories about the past has widened greatly." (327) I related how the Republican National Committee had sanctioned a 30-foot high mural portraying the Underground Railroad and its radical abolitionist leaders in Philadelphia and unveiled it as the convention of July 2000 met to nominate George Dubya. But was the process of memory making going into reverse gear at the Liberty Bell Pavilion?

At the Quaker Meetinghouse, I concluded with what I had just heard from the Park Service. One after another, those attending deplored the Park Service's inattention to the Liberty Bell's historically rich site. Then up jumped Randall Miller, former editor of the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, prolific author, and crown jewel of the History Department at St. Joseph's University, to suggest that I write an op-ed piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer to bring the issue before the public. Not quite ready to have him paint a bulls-eye on the back of someone who had made useful target practice for ultrapatriots in 1994-96, I agreed only on the condition that Miller would coauthor the piece. When he agreed, we were off to the races. The next day, Marty Moss-Coane, hostess of WHYY's "Radio Times," interviewed me on First City, and she followed my suggestion that she segueway into a discussion of the planned Liberty Bell exhibits. This gave me a chance to be provocative. "Our memory of the past is often managed and manipulated," I said; "Here it is being downright buried." The switchboard began to light up as people called in from all compass points. Overwhelmingly, they supported my plea for presenting the history of the Liberty Bell site, along with the bell, in ways that mingled stories of freedom and unfreedom, black and white, mighty and humble, leaving the public with food for thought rather than simply a warm, cozy glow about the old cracked bell.

Fifteen minutes of discussion about the Liberty Bell on "Radio News" proved a crucial turning point. The public was getting aroused. Equally important, Stephan Salisbury at the Inquirer decided to cover the story. Writing with Inga Saffron, he splashed the story on the front page, Sunday, March 24, with a headline reading "Echoes of Slavery at Liberty Bell site." Thousands of Inky readers were learning about a chapter of forgotten history — "the presence of slaves at the heart of one of the nation's most potent symbols of freedom." Salisbury and Saffron included a defensive statement from the Park Service that "the Liberty Bell is its own story, and Washington's slaves are a different one better told elsewhere." Philadelphia's African American mayor, John Street, was quoted as being disturbed by this and calling for "a very earnest dialogue ... about how to address the issue of Washington and his slaves." Randall Miller was quoted at length, pointing out that Park Service was missing an opportunity "to tell the real story of the American Revolution and the meaning of freedom. Americans, through Washington, were working out the definition of freedom in a new republic. And Washington had slaves. Meanwhile, the slaves were defining freedom for themselves by running away. There are endless contradictions embedded in this site." I was quoted that "Maybe the National Park Service feels it would besmirch the Liberty Bell to discuss [the slavery issue] and that the Liberty Bell should be pure. But that's not history [in the whole that] ..., people deserve to know."

Two days later, the Inky devoted a full page to the issue with a clever headline "Site Unseen" about the Morris-Washington house along with an article about how Mayor Street was dialoguing with Park Service officials, who now seemed willing to rethink their exhibits a bit, especially if the mayor agreed that work on the new pavilion would not be delayed. Meanwhile, Miller and I organized a committee of well-known historians and Philadelphia institutional leaders to hold the feet of Park Service officials to the fire, while offering to work with them to rethink their plans for the Liberty Bell pavilion and the site on which it would arise. Among them were Charlene Mires, an American historian at Villanova and author of a soon-to-be-published history of Independence Hall, who told the press about how not only the president's house was involved with slavery but that Independence Hall itself was where runaway slaves were tried as late as 1854. "These issues of slavery and freedom run throughout Independence Mall," Mires said to the Inquirer. "It doesn't diminish the story to address them." Upping the ante, the Inquirer's March 27 lead editorial was titled "Freedom & Slavery, Just as they coexisted in the 1700s, both must be part of Liberty Bell's story." The Inky wagged its finger at the Park Service, reminded them that "the old cracked bell will be situated on ground that enhances it as a cherished symbol of the struggle for liberty, especially to African Americans" and expressed confidence that "the Liberty Bell in its new home will not bury an ugly part of the country's history."

Meanwhile, Randall Miller and I were swapping drafts of an op-ed piece that we hoped the Inquirer would publish. Days passed with no response. We were mindful that for several years, the Inky had rejected various op-ed pieces written by Ed Lawler on "A Forgotten Landmark," where he explained how many wonderful stories could enlighten, entertain, and challenge mythical remembrances of the past if only INHP would broaden its vision. Why not, Lawler asked, restore memory of the Morris mansion and talk about how the young John Quincy Adams sat in the front hall with President Washington and seventeen visiting Chickasaw chiefs, passing the enormous ceremonial peace pipe around the circle. Or how Nelly Custis helped her grandmother, the First Lady, preparing for bed and kneeling in prayer with Martha, then singing her grandmother to sleep. Or a frank discussion of how Washington kept slaves at the mansion and pursued those who took flight. "Rather than shrinking from this historical fact," he had written, "INHP should embrace the challenge that it presents and use it to give visitors a more complex and complete view of American history," to "make it tangible that slavery was not an institution confined to the South," and invite visitors to consider how the history of slavery and the history of the Liberty Bell were "inextricably entwined." At last, word arrived that the Inquirer would publish our op-ed piece on Easter Sunday, March 31, along with one by Charlene Mires, The next day, the Associated Press put a story on the wire, to be picked up around the country, titled "Historians Decry Liberty Bell Site." The history of slavery on Independence Mall was now becoming a hot issue. Letters were pouring into the Inky.

In our op-ed essay, Miller and I argued that the Park Service should enlist historians to help bring out the rich stories showing how freedom and slavery commingled at the Liberty Bell site and elsewhere." "Washington was the living symbol of freedom and independence," we wrote, and "Washington's slaves were living symbols of the most paradoxical part of the nation's birth — freedom and unfreedom side by side, with the enslavement of some making possible the liberty of others. An exhibition of documents and artifacts should show slavery's and freedom's many meanings at the dawn of the new nation. Doing so will make the Liberty Bell's own story ring loud and true." "A free people," we concluded, "dare not bury evidence or silence long-forgotten African Americans, whose stories make the meaning of the Liberty Bell and the Revolution real and palpable, here and abroad." From this point forward, the key to moving from publicity to concrete results was to get the Park Service to work with our growing committee. To this end, we asked Park Service Superintendent Martha Aikens to meet with us to discuss what we regarded as a flawed plan. "The planned interpretation of the Liberty Bell's new site, as we understand it," we wrote, "will focus on the Liberty Bell, its history, and its significance as a national icon symbolizing the commitment to freedom in America. But the Liberty Bell story so envisioned speaks mostly to the achievement of American independence and the devotion to the ideal of freedom thereafter. This does not address the braided historical relationship between freedom and slavery, how interdependent they were, and how the freedom of some was built upon the unfreedom of others. Moreover this singular focus on liberty as the achievement of white Americans leaves African Americans out of the story, except as objects of others' benevolence and concern. The issue of how white freedom lived cheek by jowl with slavery, and how this played itself out on the now sacred ground of the Independence Hall area (including the presidential house in the 1790s), is what has occasioned so much public interest and comment." We ended our letter with a request for the interpretive plan, which we had not been able to pry from the superintendent's office.

Time does not permit me to discuss the protracted negotiations with the Park Service leaders that now ensued. Let's leave with a brief mention of the three stages of what might be called our "truth in history" campaign. First, INHP's leaders, under a barrage of negative press commentary, intensified by a long New York Times article on April 20, tried a finger-in-the-dike approach. In late April, Superintendent Aikens released a brief description of ten zones planned to interpret the Liberty Bell inside the Pavilion — our first glimpse of the interpretive plan — and invited five of our group to review one panel on slavery that they agreed to fit into one of the ten exhibit zones. At the same time, the Superintendent denied us access to the script sent out for bids, would not agree to consider all ten zones of the exhibits, and warned that the Park Service would not contemplate any major changes inside the Pavilion because "the plans and specifications for the Liberty Bell Center were completed on March 22, 2002." However, she invited us to discuss possible interpretations of the President's House that might appear in the large area where people will line up to enter the Liberty Bell Pavilion.

Second, the intervention of the National Park Service's Chief Historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, became crucially important. When he first saw the interpretative plan, Pitcaithley was shocked to find a chest-thumping, celebratory script, "an exhibit to make people feel good but not to think," an exhibit that "would be an embarrassment if it went up," and one that "works exactly against NPS's new thinking." Pitcaithley had written Superintendent Aikens urging an approach similar to that advocated by our ad hoc group of historians. "The potential for interpreting Washington's residence and slavery on the site," he wrote "... presents the National Park Service with several exciting opportunities." The President's house, he prodded, should be explained and interpreted, and "the juxtaposition of slave quarters (George Washington's slave quarters, no less) and the Liberty Bell" provided "some stirring interpretive possibilities." "The contradiction in the founding of the country between freedom and slavery," he continued becomes palpable when one actually crosses through a slave quarters site when entering a shrine to a major symbol of the abolition movement.... How better to establish the proper historical context for understanding the Liberty Bell than by talking about the institution of slavery? And not the institution as generalized phenomenon, but as lived by George Washington's own slaves. The fact that Washington's slaves Hercules and Oney Judge sought and gained freedom from this very spot gives us interpretive opportunities other historic sites can only long for. This juxtaposition is an interpretive gift that can make the Liberty Bell 'experience' much more meaningful to the visiting public. We will have missed a real educational opportunity if we do not act on this possibility."

Shuttling between Washington and Philadelphia, Pitcaithley's meetings with the Independence Historical Park staff and its regional supervisors, bore fruit and brought us to the third stage of the process — eight months of parleying and jockeying, from May through this January. During this period, Superintendent Aikens had delegated her responsibilities to deputy superintendent Dennis Reidenbach because she was departing for a new Park Service assignment. At meetings with our group on May 13, with the air fairly crackling with electricity and Chief Park Service Historian Pitcaithley playing the role of Metternich, the entire exhibit, not just one panel in one of ten zones, was put on the table for discussion, contemplation, and revision. The door opened just a crack was not flung wide open. It was agreed that the meaning of freedom in a democracy built on slave foundations would be a central theme in the exhibit; that the treatment of the president's house outside the pavilion would be interpreted with attention to the enslaved Africans and indentured servants who toiled there; and that the Park Service would rewrite the script and send it out for review by noted scholars of the African American experience and the history of liberty in America. David Hollenberg, Associate Northeast Regional Director of the Park Service, pledged that "we are looking at the bell as a symbol of an ongoing continuous struggle for liberty rather than[a symbol] of liberty attained."

In two days in late May, the Liberty Bell exhibits were overhauled. Five of the ten zones were reorganized, rescripted, and changed to drop some images while adding others. For example, INHP agreed to adopt my suggestion to use a slave head harness with a bell that announced slave flight — what might be called an "unfreedom bell" intended to thwart those seeking freedom. In many other cases, considering the need to use as many of the images already contracted for as possible, INHP agreed to new text designed to give visitors varying interpretive readings of an artifact rather than simply an informational caption. Here is one example. In the initially planned exhibit, in a section on how the Liberty Bell traveled around the country in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the INHP interpretive team juxtaposed four photographs of visitors at San Francisco's 1915 Panama-Pacific Expo, with a caption reading: "1915 scenes: men holding children up to the Bell, top-hatted men lining up for a picture at the Bell, Native American, Thomas Edison." The new text reads: "As the Liberty Bell increased in popularity as a symbol of freedom and liberty for white Americans during the last quarter of the 19th century, it reminded African Americans, Native Americans, other ethnic groups, and women of unrealized ideals. While the Bell traveled the nation as a symbol of liberty, intermittent race riots, lynchings, and Indians wars presented an alternative picture of freedom denied." Under the photo of Chief Little Bear, the caption will now read: "Forced to chose between segregation and assimilation that insisted upon the suppression of their unique cultural practices, Native Americans may not have seen the hope of fair treatment and equal rights embodied in the Bell."

In sum, INHP abandoned the attempt to restrict changes to one zone and work only around the edges of the original script. Rosalind Remer, historian at Moravian College and Director of Museum Planning and Programming at the National Constitution Center from 1997 to 1999, reported back to our committee that after two exhausting days "an amazingly thoughtful, provocative exhibit" was being hammered out, one "that will ask visitors to confront the complex relationship of freedom and unfreedom as part of their consideration of Liberty Bell-as-icon. The ongoing struggle for equality is central to all of the panels. The celebratory tone is gone, replaced by subtle discussion of symbols and popular uses of the past.... The complicated story of Reconstruction and racism is at the heart of the exhibit &mash; in some ways, I think, a pivotal section that makes clear that all of the appropriations of the Liberty Bell image are not the same — nor do they stem from the same impulses.... Images that were before seen simply as celebratory odes to the bell can now be interpreted in various ways." The major reconceptualization and rewriting left the INHP staff "a little nervous," reported Remer, "but also strengthened ... because they very clearly seemed to see that this is now an exhibit to be proud of, rather than one to hide from scholarly scrutiny."

A team of IHNP staffers, including Doris Fanelli, Coxey Toogood, and Joe Becton, none of whom had been given an opportunity to help shape the original script, produced a much revised script, which then went out to a brace of scholars, just as the Park Service's General Management Plan requires. Replies brought further changes to the script, which was then on its way toward a final review with our Ad Hoc Historians group involved. "The paradox of slavery in a land of the free will be a major exhibition theme when the $12.6 million Liberty Bell Center ... opens next spring," reported the Inquirer on August 11. "The text of the exhibition ... has been completely reworked over the last three months and is nearing completion, according to NPS officials." The completion would take another ten weeks. After the new script was mounted on their website, complete with most of the images, our group offered a number of small but important changes in the wording of what several million visitors each year would read. Betokening the new spirit of collaboration with non-NPS historians, most of the changes were accepted and woven into the nearly final text.

Nobody needs a migraine on top of a migraine, but sometimes it is necessary. On July 3, 2002, hundreds of black Philadelphians were demonstrating at the Liberty Bell site and the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, headed by Michael Coard, was cranking up a letter writing campaign and a petition with several thousand signatures that called for a monument to commemorate Washington's slaves. The African People's Solidarity Committee wanted more discussion of slavery, though much along the lines that our committee was pursuing (Inquirer, June 11, 2002). Shortly, in what would turn out to be a key move, Congressman Chaka Fattah introduced an amendment to the 2003 budget of the Department of the Interior, requiring that the Park Service report to Congress about an appropriate commemoration of the President's House and its enslaved occupants. The Appropriations Committee, which oversees the National Park Service, voted unanimously for the Fattah amendment. Shortly, the Multicultural Affairs Congress, a division of the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau, joined the call for a "prominent monument or memorial" fixing in the public memory the contributions of Washington's slaves to the early years of the new republic and making Philadelphia a premier destination for African American visitors. The City Council followed suit with a resolution endorsing this idea. Our attempts to open up the review process had brought many publics into play, which now shifted the focus to the President's House and its interpretation. Crowds are expected to be standing for many minutes waiting to see the sacred bell in about 12,000 square feet of space, many of them standing directly over where Washington's enslaved and indentured people lived and worked.

The power of the place is enormous. Think of what was happening in Philadelphia when Washington and Adams made the Morris mansion the executive branch nerve center of the new nation. Here the first two presidents wrestled with how an infant United States would deal with the French Revolution, which divided Philadelphians, like the nation, into warring camps. Here, Washington and Adams witnessed white slave planters, fleeing the black revolution in Haiti that erupted in 1791, tumbling off ships on the Delaware docks with some 900 enslaved, French-speaking Africans in tow. From here, Washington issued the orders for a federal army to march west to suppress the Whiskey Rebels in 1794, and from here Washington and his family, a year later, looked out on a shouting, milling crowd protesting Jay's Treaty, which many Philadelphians thought was a sell-out to the so recently vanquished British.

One can learn a great part of the story of the new nation's history after ratification of the Constitution in 1788 by standing in front of the Liberty Bell Pavilion while waiting to step across the soil where Washington's slaves and servants laid down their heads after a day's work. Representing our historians' group, Professor Stephanie Wolf presented three important themes that the Park Service had earlier dismissed as a diversion — and source of confusion — from the Liberty Bell focus: the need to make visible the executive branch of government that has always been missing in the Independence Mall interpretation since park rangers had no physical representation around which to work this interpretation; the need to interpret the president's house as home and office of Washington and Adams — the one a slaveowner, the other a proto-abolitionist — as a way of expressing the split that runs through the nation's history; and the need to focus on the many and diverse people who lived and worked at this site or in neighboring households. Do we want to engage the public in flesh and blood history? In the history of intertwined lives high and low, black and white, male and female, free and enslaved? Here is a rare opportunity. And to their credit, the Independence National Historic Park leaders, as their Chief Historian urged, stepped up to the plate.

Last week, on January 15, the Park Service unveiled the plans for the outside exhibits that millions will see. They include all of what we and other community organizations asked for, even more: 1) inscriptions of passages condemning slavery that were stricken from drafts of the Declaration of Independence on the front wall of the Visitor's Center (which faces the Liberty Bell site); 2) physical representations of the President's House — a partial footprint of it, perhaps in slate; 3) side walls detailing the presidencies of Washington and Adams; 4) a curved black marble wall winding through the spacious approach to the Pavilion with stories of the free, unfree, and partially free people who labored there; 5) the history of slavery in Philadelphia and in the nation at large; 6) material on the emergence of the free black community in Philadelphia and the struggle to dismantle the house of slavery, represented by a breach in the wall through which the enslaved figuratively escaped; 7) the stories of Oney Judge and Hercules who successfully made the passage to freedom; and, finally, three large sculptures or scultpture groups interpreting enslavement and emancipation, 12-16 feet high and visible from both inside and outside the site, along with a contemplative garden space . In the view of our ad hoc historians group, the design produced by the Olin Partnership of Philadelphia and Vincent Ciulla Design of Brooklyn is innovative, exciting, and entirely responsive to what we and the Park Service's chief historian had urged. Michael Coard from the Avenging the Ancestors Coalition applauded the designs, predicting that "our little Black boys and girls [will] beam with pride when they walk through Independence Mall and witness the true history of America and their brave ancestors."

Here are three salient points that marked the Liberty Bell fracas, as I see it, and distinguish it from the history wars of the early 1990s. Almost all such squabbles in recent years involve an old question: whose story gets told, who gets to speak, and who has a say-so on stimulating — or anaesthetizing — public memory? First, the media — whether newspapers, radio, or tv — was overwhelmingly opposed to the narrow and unflinchingly heroic story of the Liberty Bell and the exclusion of the rich history about the site on which it will rest. In particular, not to treat the conjunction of freedom and slavery in the historic heart of old Philadelphia and the nations's capital in the 1790s, and not to bring forward the stories of African Americans, indentured servants, women, and others struggling to find their place under the canopy of freedom and equal rights, seemed offensive and mistaken. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran about a dozen stories, three editorials, at least six op-ed essays, and dozens of letters to the editors, while WHYY, Philadelphia's National Public Radio station interviewed many of the contestants in this battle. Because of this mini-media blitz Park Service staffers came to recognize they were missing a major opportunity in telling a story, laced with paradox and ambiguity, worthy of the American democracy in what is destined to become one of the most visited historic sites in the United States. Second, the warriors of the cultural right stayed on the sidelines in this fracas. A decade ago Linda Chavez, Charles Krauthammer, John Leo, Gordon Liddy, Rush Limbaugh, Ollie North, Newt Gingrich, and others were having a field day in drenching the op-ed pages and airwaves on the battles over the Enola Gay exhibit, the "America as West" exhibit in Washington, the National History Standards, and other hot-button issues. For that matter, where was Lynne Cheney on this issue, which certainly goes to the heart of the American identity question? The only voice I have heard in the year since we raised the matter of how to interpret the Liberty Bell and its new home was that of Roger Kimball, who told a Baltimore Sun reporter that this was another multicultural denigration of the founding fathers, which is to say that George and Martha's household, which was thoroughly multicultural in its composition, ought not to be mentioned and that the many meanings of freedom, for which the Liberty Bell tolls, ought not to be disclosed.

Why has the cultural right, spoiling for fights over history a decade ago, decamped? Can it be explained entirely by 9/11? I doubt it because the absorption with homeland security in an era of terrorism has not preempted discussions of history and the proper teaching of it. In fact, Congress has appropriated $250 million for teaching American history more effectively. This shower of money has been accompanied by a NEH-sponsored student essay contest on principles of American democracy and a projected White House forum on "new policies to improve the teaching of history and civics" at all levels of education. I do not know why the cultural right has remained silent on the Liberty Bell affair. One optimistic explanation is that our democracy has matured, that the public has taken to heart the idea that Edward Linenthal and others have been talking about in recent years — that it is not unhealthy in a democracy that a tension between the commemorative voice and the historical voice should manifest itself in public history sites and that the National Park Service can serve the American democracy best if its sites become forums where "diverse interpretations of complex historical events" can be aired or taken home to contemplate." [Linenthal in "Can Museums Achieve a Balance Between Memory and History," Chronicle of Higher Education, Feb. 10, 1995, B1-2]. Let's discuss.

Third, what started out as a nasty fight turned into a cooperative effort to revamp a misguided interpretive plan. The struggle was not between historians and the National Park Service but between a handful of Park Service officials and a combination of historians, public figures, media moguls, the Park Service Chief Historian, and — as the debate unfolded — those within INHP who had not been included in formulating the script. After several months of resistance, the originators of the plan to commemorate and interpret the Liberty Bell came to understand that they were much in the minority and that it was best to move ahead with what David Hollenberg now describes as a "radically transformed" plan. I believe it helped that we tried not to personalize the argument or ascribe dark motives to anyone involved; rather, we argued that the Park Service staffers had underestimated the public's capacity for grasping complex issues and — most of all — did not follow the Park Service's own dictates, namely the General Management Plan, which calls for close collaboration with historians and other scholars in arriving at a final exhibition plan. In the heat of the National History Standards controversy in 1995, historian Kenneth Moynihan asked whether the scholars' history can be the public's history and hoped that Americans were weaning themselves from a "just-get-the-facts-straight history" and reaching an understanding that history is "an ongoing conversation that yields not final truths but an endless succession of discoveries that change our understanding not only of the past but of ourselves and of the times we live in." Eight years later, this appears to be the case — at least here. When the Liberty Bell Center opens next July — or when the exhibits accompanying it are unveiled in about October 2003, I believe the old cracked bell will toll symbolically for all the people, and the scholars' history will have become the public's history.

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.