The bell’s face was obscured by shadow, dulling the dark bronze and making it hard to see the famous crack. Nonetheless, a crowd of visitors clustered around attempting to find just the right angle to take the ideal photo. Many spoke foreign languages; visitors from all over the world come to see this landmark of liberty.
I had pictured the Liberty Bell as being bigger, but a visit to Independence National Historical Park in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was eye opening and comforting. In the midst of what is seemingly an increasingly fractured political system and destabilized government culminating in an angst-filled election season, this memorialized site of our nation’s founding lent perspective and hope.
It was in the modest red brick building now known as Independence Hall that three of our nation’s most important documents were signed: the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U.S. Constitution. In one small and simple room, the men that we hail as some of the greatest – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams, among others – mingled and argued and at long last signed their revered names to set into effect the principles of our nation’s government. Soon after, the first U.S. Congress, Senate, and Supreme Court convened next door for a short time. But the beginning of all these things was far from grandiose or celebrated with fireworks. It was humble, almost tentative, filled with perhaps more haranguing and unrefined guff than seen in recent presidential debates.
While visiting this historic site, three things, in particular, came to mind as I reflected on all that our nation has already accomplished – and endured.
Our country is still quite young. Not only do these buildings still exist and we can visit the exact rooms where our founders sat and decided the things that set us on course as an independent nation, but those edifices are quite contemporary to modern eyes. With a summary glance, they look no different than the buildings one might see functioning as a home or office of business on any American street. One cannot travel to Europe and see still-standing structures where ancient leaders like Charlemagne or Alfred the Great devised governments and strategies. Here, we have them, large-as-life and maintained to near-perfection. And yet as young as we are, we have come a long, long way and moved far beyond the small red brick statehouse on the square.
Our country began as a grand experiment – which has thrived. A government system like America’s had not been attempted before. It was instituted as a wonderful finely tuned theory that had not yet been tested. Before it’s founding and in all the hundreds of years after, there have been so many firsts – never preceded trials, decisions, and opportunities. And in every single one, America has struggled and grown and flourished and moved on. Perhaps we are not past the experimental stage even now, as we continue to face new dilemmas and search for untried solutions. But maybe there is also more room for success in our horizons than we think to imagine.
Our nation’s history has never been seamless or smooth or easy. As excellent as a foundation as we have been given, it’s been a bumpy ride. One of the first things to happen after the Declaration of Independence was the arrival of the British army, who occupied the very building were the document had been signed, turning the room into a soldiers’ hospital and burning the furniture as firewood. That was hardly a triumphant looking start, and yet today the founding documents are proudly preserved and cherished, and the Redcoats are nowhere to be seen on any street in America.
Perhaps then, this is why the Liberty Bell is the symbol of freedom that we give to the world. Not because it is flawless, not because our country had everything perfected on day one. But because with all the trials and threats we have faced and will face, we hold onto the promise and possession of liberty and have not let it go.
Read more here about Independence National Historical Park in the July-August 2016 issue of AFA Journal.