Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Independence Hall

It stands for something more important than we shall ever fully understand!
by Charlie Leck

As citizens in a half dozen nations struggle now to secure freedom and improve the systems of governance under which they live, we in America seem so often to take for granted the great cost that courageous people paid in this nation to establish our Republic. Back in 1993 I wrote an essay about our extraordinary Liberty Bell. Recently I had occasion to read that piece again. I thought it both humorous enough and interesting enough that I should republish it here. So, here it is...
Again I called one of the Councilmen and told him I was serious about what to call the new city government building — Independence Hall. Absolutely, it would be a wonderful name! Let’s do it! He chuckled, thinking it a grand joke.

We spent a few hours in Philadelphia yesterday. A four hour wait at the airport allowed us to hop on the city’s rapid transit rail shuttle and fire into the city. We singled out two sight-seeing priorities (or, should that be “doubled out”). So, we walked six blocks down Market Street, to Chestnut and Fifth, to view Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

“What’s the big deal about the Liberty Bell, Dad?” Cynthia asked.

Every story I wanted to tell her about the famous national symbol was dismissed as myth by the little brochure I held in my hand. It wasn’t rung at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The wooden steeple over Independence Hall was in such bad repair, so rotten, that tolling the bell might have toppled it. Nor did it ring to warn Philadelphians of the approaching British soldiers. It had been hauled off to Allentown, Pennsylvania, during the war, to prevent the British from melting it down and recasting it into brass cannon works.

“So, what’s the big deal, Dad?” The question seemed to reverberate in my brain, like the ringing of the big bell itself. I felt some sweat drip from beneath my armpit and land coolly on my side. Cynthia, nearly ten years old, should be grown out of such questions.

“It is one of our most important national symbols, Cynthia. It stands for the freedom we have here in America.” I said it solemnly.

“Why, Dad?” She wasn’t really interested. Her voice was coated with boredom. The pressure was mounting. I strained to remember something from my encounter with American history textbooks. No light bulb! So, I read the biblical inscription across the top of the bell, thinking it might explain something to her.

“Proclaim liberty throughout the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof!” Wow! Cool! I stood straighter. My chest bulged proudly.

“So, what’s the big deal about the bell? What’s the big deal about the crack?”

I wanted to tell her that the bell cracked when Philadelphians rang it too jubilantly upon hearing of the surrender of the British at the Battle of Saratoga. Again, the brochure reminded me that the bell was in hiding. It wasn’t re-hung in Independence Hall until 1785. It rang out to call the Pennsylvania legislature into session and to celebrate festive occasions. It also tolled the death of the nation’s founding fathers.

“Huh, Dad, huh?”

Thank goodness a tour guide from the National Park Service began to speak. He also struggled in trying to explain the bell’s fame, but he said it clearly.

“This bell is our nation’s most important and famous symbol of liberty.” He also said it proudly. I thought fleetingly of the Statue of Liberty. Then, as he continued to speak, the light bulb came on — at first dimly, and then it slowly brightened.

In 1837, a poor but recognizable drawing of the bell appeared as a frontispiece logo on Liberty, a magazine of an anti-slavery organization in New York. Soon after, the abolitionists dubbed it “The Liberty Bell” and took it as the central emblem of their cause. Though Americans were not unanimous about the goals surrounding the anti-slavery movement, the name stuck. And, from that point on, the bell’s fame began to spread. More and more people came to Philadelphia to climb the tower to see it. In 1852, it was brought down from the steeple to the main floor, to enable large crowds of visitors to view it.

“So, what’s the big deal, Dad? What’s the big deal about the bell?”
I looked carefully at it. Mediocre! It is one-fourth tin and the remainder is a mixture of zinc, lead, antimony, arsenic and bronze. The guide explained that they are unevenly distributed, which sets up internal stresses during temperature variations. Documentation from the eighteenth century indicates its tone was never very pleasant.
“Cynthia,” I said. “Look at it! It is absolutely beautiful. It stands for something more important than we shall ever fully understand. It represents an attempt at government that is completely fair to all people. The system is not faultless, and has often failed. But, the ideal for which it stands is the most perfectly conceived system of governance that the world has ever known. It is the culmination of the great dream of the ancient Greeks! It fulfills the legend of King Arthur! It derives its life-blood from the Magna Carta! It represents the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights, all rolled up into one!

“So,” Cynthia said, “what’s the big deal?”

“Let’s go eat,” I answered, “and head back to the train.”


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1 comment:

  1. So often we take for granted what we have or aspire to have - it is no big deal. Only when we lose it it becomes a very big deal.