By the nation’s Centennial Celebration in 1876, the Liberty Bell was one of the most prominent symbols of the country, a standing only rivaled by the face of George Washington.* The cracked Liberty Bell was represented on all kinds of commemorative commercial products sold at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Plates, glasses, pitchers, coins, even spoons. You could have a whole Liberty Bell feast! Today if you think of the top symbols for the United States, the Statue of Liberty comes to mind, and would probably edge out the Liberty Bell for its symbolic power. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t completed until 1886, though, so the Liberty Bell reigned as one of the top American symbols in the nineteenth century.
The pervasiveness of the Liberty Bell is demonstrated by all the American causes that appropriated it. The abolitionists in the first half of the nineteenth century were first. Later in the twentieth century, the Liberty Bell was used to advertise war bonds for both WWI and WWII. Those involved in the Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement also used the Liberty Bell as a symbol for their calls for justice.
A desire to hide the complicated reality of freedom in the United States led site planners to not disclose the detailed history of the current site of our Liberty Bell. At the Liberty Bell Center adjacent to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the home of George Washington once stood. And Washington was a slave owner. So one of the most potent symbols for freedom in our nation is proudly housed at the site of an equally potent contradiction—the first president of our country, a visionary dedicated to this experimental enterprise in freedom, also denied liberty to a class of people living within his country and home. The National Park Service was committed to presenting this unsettling topic at the new Liberty Center as they were planning it in the 1990s. The local leadership of the center, however, did not desire to create intellectual dissonance for visitors. And so, in order to not sully the public’s sanitized view of our country’s birth, the full history of the site was not presented when the center opened in 2003.
There is a favorable resolution to this tale, though. In December 2010, after the urging of a U.S. House of Representatives Report in 2003, a historical commemoration of the President’s House was placed next to the Liberty Bell Center, a project which explains Washington’s connection to slavery.
Symbols represent our ideals, not our realities. The Liberty Bell needs to be understood as such in order to see the uncensored history of the United States.
* First three paragraphs taken from Gary Nash, The Liberty Bell, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.