Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Gary B. Nash

Cradle of Liberty

Philadelphians snort at the idea that a building in Boston—Faneuil Hall, a marketplace and meeting place--should presume to be called “the cradle of liberty” just because James Otis gave a fiery anti-British speech there in 1761. How can that compare to a city where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were drafted, debated, revised, and signed—both in a brief period of eleven years?

Pride of place, if we can be generous for a moment, can be shared. Mark Twain once called Switzerland the Cradle of Liberty because alpine-born democracy had roots there too. Indeed the world is full of cradles of liberty, and some are now being violently rocked by young people hooked into social media as the Arab Spring turns the Middle East upside down.

Yet, Philadelphia is a special cradle of liberty.

It not only was where the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention did their epic work.  Indeed, a century and more before, it was the city imagined by the visionary William Penn as a place where people of all classes, cultures, and ancestral backgrounds would learn to live together. Penn and his Quaker followers were determined to establish a unique colony free of the violence, intolerance, and corruption that were widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.  Just a generation before, Puritans in Massachusetts were hanging Quakers on the Boston Common, and only a few years before Penn arrived they were bent on eradicating Wampanoag people from the Bay Colony

Religious and Ethnic Tolerance

Philadelphia—to be called the “city of brotherly love”—never entirely lived up to its visionary founding principles; but nowhere else in the hemisphere did colonizing Europeans display such substantial toleration for religious and ethnic differences and such peaceful relations with Native Americans.  “I deplore two principles in religion,” Penn wrote memorably; “obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’s sake.” Most European visitors were astounded at such words and at how they took hold.

For a while, Penn’s vision of “putting the power in the people” was realized in good measure.  And then, nearly a century after Penn’s arrival, Philadelphia was the place where those stirring words that ricocheted around the world—“inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “we the people”—were written and enshrined.  For generations to come, a storm of strangers would cherish Philadelphia as the place where these founding documents were written and ratified.

But many of the strangers came unfree and involuntarily. From Africa, they would wait a long time before they saw Philadelphia as a cradle of liberty. But they insisted that liberty should be theirs as well and were not shy about invoking the principles espoused in the nation’s founding documents. “Search the legends of tyranny and find no precedent.” thundered James Forten, accomplished sailmaker, businessman, church leader, and philanthropist, in 1813.  “It has been left for Pennsylvania to raise her ponderous arm against the liberties of the black, whose greatest boast has been that he resided in a state where civil liberty and sacred justice were administered alike to all.”  Shaking the cradle of liberty, he warned, in his effort to ward off vicious laws restricting free black men and women, that “the story will fly from the north to the south, and the advocates of slavery, the traders in human blood, will smile contemptuously at the once boasted moderation and humanity of Pennsylvania.”

Two decades later, when “the cradle of liberty” motto was gaining currency, abolitionists in Boston and New York, seizing on the words from Leviticus inscribed on the brim of Philadelphia’s old State House bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.”  Rechristening the bell as “the Liberty Bell,” they shamed Philadelphia for lagging behind in the crusade to cleanse the nation of its deep-dyed sin of chattel bondage.

Clash of Liberty and Slavery

This put Philadelphia on the defensive, its cradle of liberty motto under attack. “Shame on you,” shouted one abolitionist pamphlet with the Liberty Bell on its cover. “Is it to be tyrants amid slaves that Americans, with liberty glowing on every page of their history, and the glorious Declaration of Independence upon their lips, have been found willing to degrade themselves?” Another charged: “Hitherto, the bell has not obeyed he inscription: and its peals have been a mockery, while one sixth of all inhabitants are in abject slavery.”

And with that, the bell tarnished, the cradle of liberty needed repairs.  That came as Philadelphians of different political persuasions paraded their own brand of liberty—Protestant nativists who put the Liberty Bell on a pedestal, literally, in Independence Hall in 1855 while attacking Catholics; pro-labor advocates such as the wildly popular journalist George Lippard, who fought to protect blue collar liberty from exploitative capitalists; and black Philadelphians struggling for social justice and the right to vote. In a fast-growing, immigrant-filled city many wanted to claim part of the cradle.

In time, the city cemented its claim as the cradle of liberty. The millions who thronged to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in1876 had plenty of encouragement in reaffirming that Penn’s green country town was the cradle of liberty. Ownership of the cradle was strengthened as surging crowds paraded down Broad Street for the centennial of the Constitutional Convention in 1887.

Then into the twentieth century people of all political persuasions came to Philadelphia to embrace the Liberty Bell as the preeminent talisman of freedom.  Among them were women suffragists during the Great War for whom the “cradle of liberty” terminology was dishonestly used while women were denied the suffrage.

Ideals vs. Realities

Similarly, when he was working to establish a National Freedom Day on which Americans could annually measure the distance between the nation’s glittering ideals and the somber realities on the ground, Richard R. Wright Sr., who had been born in slavery, knew just where to come. By laying a wreath in 1942 at the feet of the Liberty Bell, he furthered the notion of mending a splintered cradle of liberty. Civil rights activists repeated this ritual in the 1960s and 1970s by conducting sit-ins and demonstrations at Independence Hall

After World War II, leaders from newly independent countries—David Ben Gurion from Israel, Jomo Kenyetta from Kenya, a Ghanaian delegation, and many others—came not to New York or Boston but to Philadelphia, where they stood in Independence Hall and before the Liberty Bell to honor freedom’s birthplace that inspired their own quests for freedom. Cold War statesmen followed: Albert Tarchiani, the Italian ambassador to the U.S. in 1948; Ernst Reuter, mayor West Berlin, and Mohammed Mossedeq, premier of Iran, in 1951; Clement Atllee, prime minister of England in 1952; Nicholas Kallay and Mario Scelba, premiers of Hungary and Italy respectively in 1955.

The stream of international figures coming to pay their respects to Philadelphia as the cradle of liberty continues to the present day as they partake in the city’s historic role in building the nation. Yet the cradle still has cracks and blemishes. Perfecting it and keeping it in good repair requires an ongoing commitment to shoulder the responsibility of living up to the motto. This is the work of citizens, organizations, institutions, and politicians.  Boasting about Philadelphia as the cradle of liberty is one thing; cradling liberty is another.

Gary B. Nash is Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA and the author of many books, including First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

Liberty Bell

It is America’s most famous relic, a nearly sacred totem. Several million people each year make a pilgrimage to see it, many dabbing their eyes as they gaze at it intently. Around the world it is regarded as a universal symbol of freedom.

[caption id="attachment_5788" align="alignright" width="297"]In the recently opened Liberty Bell Center, the symbolic bell is viewed against the backdrop of its original home in the Pennsylvania State House. (Photograph for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Jamie Castagnoli) In the recently opened Liberty Bell Center, the symbolic bell is viewed against the backdrop of its original home in the Pennsylvania State House. (Photograph for the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia by Jamie Castagnoli)[/caption]

It began inconspicuously as a two-thousand-pound mass of unstable metal; it nearly ended up in the scrap heap; it cracked and lost its voice; it was all but forgotten. But then, gradually, it became a priceless national treasure. For more than a century, the Liberty Bell has captured Americans’ affections and become a stand-in for the nation’s vaunted values: independence, freedom, unalienable rights, and equality.  It is virtually a touchstone of American identity because Americans have adopted it, along with the flag, as the symbol of justice, the rule of law, and the guardian of sovereign rights. For many years, it has been cherished in poem, song, and story.

The Liberty Bell started out simply as the bell commissioned by the colonial legislature of Pennsylvania to hang in the steeple of the State House in 1752 so that the growing city would have a bell with great carrying power to announce meetings of the legislature and toll for notable events. Cast in London, it cracked at its first testing at which point two artisans in Philadelphia, John Pass and John Stow, recast the bell. Around its brim, it carried words from the Old Testament: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus, XXV, 10).

During the revolutionary era the State House bell became an accomplice in revolutionary politics. It rang out in 1765 to warn of the approach of an English ship sailing up the Delaware River to deliver stamped paper for implementing the hated Stamp Act.  It tolled in 1768 to attract thousands gathering to protest the Townshend duties. Again it rang to assemble the citizenry in 1773 for a town meeting to protest the Tea Act. And then again, in 1774, the bell summoned Philadelphians to protest the Coercive Acts.  The climax came on July 8, 1776, when the bell pealed and pealed as peopled massed in the State House yard to hear the sheriff of Philadelphia read the Declaration of Independence at high noon.

Bell Hidden From British

The State House bell had to sit out the British occupation of the city in 1777-78 because Philadelphians, knowing that the British would melt it down and convert it into bullets to be aimed at insurgent Americans, wrestled it down from the State House steeple and carried it by wagon to Allentown. But it was back in the city to toll the British surrender at Yorktown on October 24, 1781, and again to announce the signing of the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain on April 15, 1783.

The bell escaped a narrow brush with death in 1812 when Philadelphia officials considered demolishing the rotting hulk of the State House, which had lost its function since the state capital had moved inland to Harrisburg. But the city brokered a deal in 1816 to acquire the old State House, along with the bell, from the state. Eight years later, when the Marquis de Lafayette made his triumphal tour through the United States, the bell began to acquire a new life, largely through the publicity paid to the crumbling State House. Lafayette was received in a redecorated east room, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of 1787 had been signed, amidst massive celebrations and a new wave of interest in the revolutionary era. Now the State House, called Independence Hall, became hallowed ground.  But the old bell still awaited its destiny.

That came in the 1830s when New York and Boston abolitionists, drawn by the bell’s inscription about proclaiming freedom throughout the land, appropriated the bell as an emblem of the growing campaign to abolish slavery. The New York Anti-Slavery Society’s Anti-Slavery Record named the “old bell,” as it was familiarly known in Philadelphia, as “The Liberty Bell”—“the tocsin of freedom and slavery’s knell,” as one abolitionist put it in a poem that was reprinted in the abolitionist paper The Liberator.  The New York abolitionists egged on their Philadelphia counterparts, reminding them that “Hitherto, the bell has not obeyed  the inscription and its peals have been a mockery, while one sixth of ‘all inhabitants’ are in abject slavery.”

1843: The Crack

After almost one hundred years of ringing in important commemorative moments, the Liberty Bell cracked in 1843. To this day many people believe the hoary legend that it cracked when tolling on July 8, 1835, as the funeral procession of John Marshall, longtime chief justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, passed through the city.  It is almost certain, however, that the fissure occurred while it rang in remembrance of Washington’s birthday eight years later.  Once damaged, it rested on the first floor of Independence Hall in elaborate settings.

The bell did not rest in the public’s admiration. In 1847, the  journalist George Lippard wrote a story, “Ring, Grandfather, Ring” for The Saturday Courier that related how an old bellman rang the bell to pronounce independence, after his grandson heard Congress’s resolve. The popular tale, though fictional, was retold as truth and thereafter linked the bell to the Declaration of Independence.

Once firmly fixed in the American mind as an avatar of all they believed their nation to be, the Liberty Bell was sent to and fro across the continent.  After the Civil War, it became an important messenger of reconciliation between the North and South. Invited by the organizers of New Orleans’s World’s Industrial and Cotton Exposition in 1885, the bell, scrubbed and polished, was carried on an elaborately decorated flat car for a four-day trip to New Orleans.  At each stop, people surged forward to touch, stroke, and kiss the bell as the train wended through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi before finally reaching New Orleans. Once installed, it enthralled visitors for nearly five months, reaching iconic status. Once an antislavery symbol, it now became a symbol of national reconciliation, with its old antislavery message muffled in the process.

The next trip was to Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. On April 29, 1893, thirteen black horses with one hundred equestrial Chicago Hussars of the Illinois National Guard escorted the bell to the “White City”—the hundreds of building erected on the shore of Lake Michigan. The procession stretched for two miles “through crowds of enthusiastic people who cheered the Emblem of Liberty every step of the way—greater homage was never paid King or Queen,” wrote a Chicago newspaper. Most of some 27 million visitors gazed at the bell, displayed in the Pennsylvania building on a circular platform surrounded by a gilt railing built to keep at a distance the multitudes wanting to caress the bell.  Shoals of visitors on July 4, 1893, drank in “The Liberty Bell March,” composed by America’s bandmaster John Philip Sousa. By the time of its return to Philadelphia in November 1893, about one-third of the nation had seen it. Flag worship had seized the country in an era of mass immigration, and bell worship now became its cousin. Other trips took the Liberty Bell to expositions in Atlanta, Charleston, St. Louis, and Boston.

[caption id="attachment_30812" align="alignright" width="227"]A drawing of the Liberty Bell being welcomed back to Philadelphia after a cross-country tour. A 1915 drawing by Frank H. Taylor depicts the Liberty Bell being welcomed home to Philadelphia after a cross-country tour. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

On the last of its seven trips, to San Francisco and San Diego in 1915, in the midst of a world set afire by World War I, a journalist in San Diego opined that “there is not a single person in any state of the union who does not feel a personal interest in the bell.” The historian of the Panama-Pacific Exposition echoed this: “The Bell is the great American patriotic symbol, almost a national Palladium. About that 20-odd hundred-weight of cracked metal there probably clings more of devotional feeling than about any other merely physical thing in the country.”

Never again would the Liberty Bell leave the city. The bell had accepted the laurels of an entire generation of Americans, and the nation’s school children had been taught–in poems, songs, and schoolbook stories–to revere the bell—a bell that belonged to everybody.  Making it the indispensable American icon was the marketing of its image in millions of trinkets, postcards, miniature versions, postage stamps, and other memorabilia. On New Year’s Eve in 1924, 1925, and 1926, the tapping of the Liberty Bell, broadcast by radio across the nation, welcomed in the New Year.  By this time, there was hardly a sensate American who did not know about the Liberty Bell.

[caption id="attachment_6345" align="alignright" width="300"]The Justice Bell, a copy of the Liberty Bell, traveled 5,000 miles to all 67 counties in Pennsylvania in the campaign for women's suffrage. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania) The Justice Bell, a copy of the Liberty Bell, traveled 5,000 miles to all sixty-seven counties in Pennsylvania in the campaign for women's suffrage. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The price of immortality was cooptation. Organizations of every political stripe and multiple causes enlisted the Liberty Bell for what they wanted. Among the first since the abolitionists were women suffragists. The Pennsylvania Woman Suffrage Association, campaigning amidst World War I, commissioned a Liberty Bell of their own to tour the state. Dubbing their bell the “Justice Bell,” they added two words to the famous inscription: the bell would not only proclaim liberty throughout the land but “establish justice,” which meant enfranchising women. Other groups followed their lead, including a citizens group called the Loyal Fraternity of the Liberty Bell formed to fight the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and the “Liberty Bell Ringers” in Michigan dedicated to keeping alive some of the unrealized Progressive reforms.

In both World War I and World War II, the U.S. government enlisted the Liberty Bell in “Liberty Bond” campaigns to finance the struggle to protect democracy. Ships and  airplanes were named after the Liberty Bell, and the Liberty Bell itself, standing in Independence Hall, formed the backdrop for many patriotic gatherings.  At President Franklin Roosevelt’s urging, the bell was tapped for his radio broadcasts to pump up patriotism.  The tapping went out over the radio waves throughout the war: tapping “V” for Victory in October 1942 to mark the thirty-first anniversary of the Chinese Republic; for “I am an American Day” on May 16, 1943; for July Fourth in the same year; for the opening of two new war bond drives in September 1943 and January 1944; for a recording to be played to the first wave of soldiers and marines storming the beaches of Normandy in June 1944; for the liberation of the Philippines on March 9, 1945; and tapping out VICTORY in August 1945.

In the Cold War, Washington frequently deployed the Liberty Bell as the beacon demonstrating American unity and strength, while it was further immortalized when “Liberty Bell 7” carried Gus Grissom’s into space in 1961. By this time, organizations from far right to far left claimed the Liberty Bell as their own. These ranged from the Liberty Belles, who saturated the country with messages that the Sixteenth Amendment (authorizing the federal income tax) was unconstitutional, to many organizations involved in the civil rights movement who staged sit-ins at the Liberty Bell, to members of the Quebec Separatist Movement that planned to dynamite the Liberty Bell in 1965, and to Earth Day environmentalists thronging the Liberty Bell on its first gathering in 1970.  Meanwhile, entrepreneurs happily appropriated the Liberty Bell, plastering its image on everything from skimpy women’s underwear, to cat and dog pillows, to the gigantic image at the Phillies Citizens Bank Park that lights up and rings whenever a hometown baseball player hits a home run.

In 1976, to celebrate the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, the National Park Service (which assumed custodianship of the bell, along with Independence Hall, in 1948) moved the Liberty Bell from Independence Hall, where it had rested for more than two centuries, to a glass-and-brick pavilion facing Independence Hall a block away. Then in 2003 it found a new home in a spacious exhibit building at Sixth and Market streets, where visitors today, averaging annually in the early twentieth-first century at about 1.5 million, can see the Liberty Bell’s long and varied history portrayed in words and images. Visitors can throw kisses at the nearly sacred bell, but they cannot touch it.

Gary B. Nash is Professor of History Emeritus at UCLA and the author of many books, including First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

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