In 1751, the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned a large bell to mark the 50th anniversary of the state’s original constitution, written by William Penn in 1701. The bell’s inscription was taken from Leviticus, a Book in the Pentateuch, or the first five Books of the Bible. It reads: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Visit Philadelphia today and you will see—you might even feel—that the Liberty Bell embodies our national pride and spirit. We believe in the message the bell represents, and we love the idea of freedom, ringing loudly throughout the land and reminding us all of who we hope to be.
This week, as we eat soggy pasta salad and slurp crisp slices of watermelon, toasting our nation and celebrating our unique commitment to freedom, we will think fondly of this liberty. We will lift our eyes skyward, searching for every exploding light, and feel pride at the idea that liberty means something to us Americans. We will remember that we one day decided, collectively, that it was worth sacrificing everything in order to be free. We will continue to boast even now about the lengths we will take to protect our freedom. Don’t tread on us.
It is true that America loves its liberty; it is also true that American notions of liberty have always coincided with American practices of exclusion. American liberty has an asterisk, for it has historically meant freedom for some and definitely not for all.
When early Pennsylvanians decided to make a state house bell whose toll would remind people of liberty, they choose words that captured the expansive concept of liberty: liberty only works if it is for all of us. The irony, of course, is that in 1701, in 1751, and even in 1851 “all the inhabitants” of the land were neither liberated nor proclaiming any such thing. This conflict is the tricky problem with American memory and celebrations of our history. We cling to our stated values, while ignoring—erasing even—those not deemed worthy of inclusion.
30 years after the Pennsylvania bell was commissioned, the New Hampshire state convention named the enemy of liberty, saying, “The love of power is so alluring that few have ever been able to resist its bewitching influence.” New Hampshirites seemed to know that liberty requires ongoing sacrifice because power and greed are equally alluring ideals. What the Pennsylvania delegates failed to recognize is that proclaiming liberty for all inhabitants requires shared sacrifice; otherwise the freedom of the many will be sacrificed for the liberty of the few. Liberty and power must be held in tension, especially in communities where equality is espoused.
Liberty, first dreamed up by those early signers of the Declaration, and then made real by the brave men who died for the freedom to govern themselves, was costly. When a young United States of America celebrated its 20th Independence Day, many Americans were right to toast our independence from tyrannical Britain. Many other inhabitants of America must have choked on the celebratory cries, knowing those who rejected the tyranny of Europe had no trouble at all using abusive power to limit those around them.
The Liberty Bell, as we now remember it, as a beacon of hope, of equality, of shared sacrifice, did not come to signify these expansive and inclusive ideals until resisting voices took the Bell at its word, and reclaimed it as a symbol for those previously excluded from the idea of American freedom. Abolitionists popularized and made famous the Liberty Bell as an American icon, and they did so simply by calling Americans to be who they claimed to be: Be people willing to pursue liberty for all folks, rejecting abusive power as a means to personal liberty.
Those resisting voices were accused of desecrating the intent of the inscription and the meaning of the bell in American history. However, those abolitionists were deeply loyal to the values celebrated by Americans. History is complicated, and they knew liberty and power were not the same thing. They knew our hypocrisy would destroy us unless we began to realize that liberty for all requires limits be placed on personal power.
Today, these familiar ideals will continue to divide us as a society unless we hear from all those who talk about American liberty, what it means, who its for, and how it works. We cannot reserve liberty for a few while many suffer. As we celebrate Independence Day, perhaps we should think not just about the Liberty Bell, its history and inscription, but also its crack, and the obvious vulnerabilities in our shared history. We need to elevate resisting voices who remind us that we all have a claim to liberty, just as we all have to sacrifice in order to live in community with those around us.
Despite the problematic nature of many of our American symbols and the historical erasure embedded within them, the Liberty Bell holds lessons for all of us who care about our country: The presence of a crack does not diminish the value of the symbol. Resisting voices who help us understand the many implications of liberty do not dilute the power of patriotism. Understanding our deeply rooted hypocrisy does not detract from our striving to form a more perfect union. Acknowledging our mistakes does not destroy our pride as Americans.
Facing a complete history, which welcomes every perspective of who we have been and who we might become, which celebrates our symbols even as we notice their flaws, is perhaps the most American way to celebrate the birth of our nation. After all, we are a country born out of the notion that all men are created equal, and we cherish this idea even as we often fail to act on this core belief. To be American is to know big dreams are realized with small steps and shared sacrifices. This 4th of July, I want to believe our hopes for liberty and equality can coexist, and that they matter enough for us to notice how we fail to live up to our own American dreams. Learning America’s history—the noble, the hypocritical, the celebrated and the erased—issues an invitation to all of us to sacrifice for the stunning American idea that every inhabitant is created equally and for liberty. What a dream.