On a recent business trip to Philadelphia, I had time after my meeting to walk around the historic district and see the Liberty Bell exhibit, which is right across the street from Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. Being the sentimentally patriotic type, I envisioned my visit to the Liberty Bell as a "pilgrimage" to one of America's holiest shrines. I truly was excited to see it.
You can imagine my disappointment, then, when my visit to the Liberty Bell -- one of America's most treasured relics -- turned out to be a dispiriting experience.
The bell is housed in a newly designed Liberty Bell Center, which opened in October 2003 and is operated by the National Park Service. The architecture of the Center is modern and plain and emotionally barren, composed mainly of metal and concrete and glass. The structure offers no more inspiration than a highway rest stop. It is completely unworthy of the important object found inside.
After walking down the main hall past the various displays that tell "the story" of the Liberty Bell, one arrives at the Liberty Bell itself, which stands alone in a large alcove at the end of the hall. The bell is rather unimpressive physically. It is approximately four feet long from crown to curve and three feet wide at the lip. According to the NPS website, it weighs about 2000 pounds. (How the Liberty Bell compares in size to other bells, I don't know.) The bell still hangs from its original yoke. Although you can see Independence Hall through the picture window behind the Liberty Bell, in my opinion the bell's placement in such a large space diminishes, rather than enhances, its visual impact.
For preservation reasons, the public no longer is allowed to touch the Liberty Bell. So it is cordoned off, but not with elegant ropes or velvet cords, but with harsh steel cables. Indeed, the bell is displayed without ornamentation or fanfare of any kind. Unlike in the gift shop across the street, there are no American flags or red, white, and blue bunting or traditional music inside or outside the Liberty Bell Center. Hardly a hint of patriotism is found in the place. The many foreign tourists viewing the exhibit must have wondered why the Liberty Bell is even considered important.
In truth, from a purely historical perspective, the Liberty Bell, despite its prominent placement next to Independence Hall, has much less of a connection to the American Founding than is ordinarily believed.
The bell originally was cast in England in 1751 to serve as the bell for the Pennsylvania statehouse. Due to flaws in the bell when it arrived in Pennsylvania, it was re-cast locally in 1753 (meaning that it was melted down and re-formed).
The common myth that the Liberty Bell was rung on our nation's day of independence is not true. According to the Park Ranger I spoke to, the bell was rung four days later on July 8, 1776, which was when the Declaration of Independence was read to the people of Philadelphia. Moreover, the Liberty Bell was rung that day along with 10 other bells. The Park Ranger made sure to emphasize this last point.
The bell was not even named the Liberty Bell until the 1830s, when the Abolitionists used it as a symbol of their movement. The Abolitionists appear to have been inspired, not by the bell's actual connection to American history, but by the bell's biblical inscription: "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof" (Leviticus 25:10).
The bell rang for the last time on George Washington's Birthday in 1846, when the now-famous crack emerged, rendering the bell unusable. The Liberty Bell did not start to take on true iconic status until the following year, when George Lippard wrote a fictional story for The Saturday Currier which started the myth of the Liberty Bell being rung on July 4, 1776, to herald the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
As might be expected in today's "post-modern" age, the various displays inside the Liberty Bell Center dutifully puncture the myths about the Liberty Bell. At the same time, however, they pay little attention to the Liberty Bell's larger importance over the years as the physical embodiment of the noble political principles upon which our nation was founded. Granted, this importance may have been based on a mythology about the bell that was not entirely true, but such historical revisionism cannot erase the fact that the Liberty Bell has had a meaningful place in the hearts of the American people since before the Civil War. I certainly recall as a child (in the 1970s) recognizing the Liberty Bell's profound symbolic role in our common culture, our "civic religion." Unfortunately, the exhibit gives almost no sense of how the Liberty Bell became such a treasured symbol of our country.
Instead, the overall thrust of the exhibit is, much more narrowly, to emphasize the Liberty Bell's ties to various civil rights movements for minorities. In keeping with how history usually is presented these days, the exhibit often seems to be rebuking the nation for its failures in the past to fully live up to the message of the bell's inscription, especially with regard to the treatment of blacks, Indians, and women. The Liberty Bell, as presented in the exhibit, apparently has little relevance to a middle-class white male like myself, except as a tool to scold me and my presumed ancestors for our wrongdoing against others.
Perhaps I was viewing the exhibit through too sensitive (or too "conservative") eyes. But I did not see much reason there, for a person experiencing the Liberty Bell today, to embrace the bell as a symbolically meaningful piece of American history. On the contrary, the cold and uninspiring manner in which the Liberty Bell is displayed, and the overtly critical approach taken by the exhibit in presenting both the history of the bell and of the nation, in my opinion robs the Liberty Bell of its former ability to generate strong feelings of national pride and love of country. After all, how can one feel pride in a country that, according to the exhibit, has so deeply sinned against humanity?
I can't help but feel that the Liberty Bell exhibit reflects a tragic, and ultimately ruinous, decline of patriotism in this great country. The exhibit is based on the perverse notion, increasingly common since the 1960s, that the highest form of "patriotism" is feeling shame for the past and protesting against the present. Truth be told, I am not surprised by this. This is what is happening in schools, colleges, newsrooms, and television and movie studios all across the country. Nevertheless, it is terribly sad to see such a cherished icon brought low. I dare say that even minorities today are unlikely to see the Liberty Bell, now denuded of any connections to a glorious American past, as a symbol to guide them, and us, towards an even more glorious future.
Still, my own patriotism will never die. After seeing the exhibit, I bought a small replica of the Liberty Bell at the gift shop. It is displayed in my office with pride.
Note: This article was first published on American Thinker.