The Mythographer found herself in Philly recently, and it would have seemed downright rude not to visit the Liberty Bell. Now, the Mythographer went to public school, so I didn’t even really know what the Liberty Bell was, just that it had a crack in it. But the whole experience got me thinking about the similarities between patriotism and religion. Herein my tale of pilgrimage.
It was a rainy Monday in the off-season, so we mostly had Independence Square historical park to ourselves. Clearly the place was designed for vast crowds moving at sheep-herding pace. You can see the Bell in its glassed-in enclosure off Chestnut Street, but you can’t actually get inside the building at this end of Independence Square historic park. First you have to cross a vast plaza to the other end of the blocks-long visitor’s center. You go through security, which for us bagless tourists meant opening our jackets for a half-dozen Homeland Security officers. You pick up your free, timed tickets from the nonchalant National Park Service rangers at the front desk. Then you experience various other, lesser exhibits along the way, like a long, narrow Via Dolorosa designed by the U. S. Government, before finally ending up where you started, standing in front of the Bell itself.
Some patriotic symbols are more potent than others. Nobody remembers that the first U. S. capital was not Washington, or Philadelphia, but in New York City. (Thank you, Ranger Helen.) What is all the fuss about? It may not even be the bell that rung in July 1776 to call citizens to listen to the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. It’s just a bell, cast in 1751 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s original state charter. It didn’t even hold up that well. The signature wide crack is the effect of a poor attempt to repair a narrower crack–that’s embarrassing.
But like many revered objects both religious and secular, the Bell is important not because of its original mythology, but because of how people have used that myth in the centuries since. The Liberty Bell, as the impressively self-aware exhibit text teaches visitors, first came to prominence when the abolitionists picked it up before the Civil War. Then it was taken up by the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the Native American rights movement, and with each generation, each iteration, it became more and more beloved. Thus what we look at when we look at the Bell is not some obscure and debatable Revolutionary Era fact, but the living legacy of freedom that grew from it.
After Obama was elected President in January, I heard lots of my fellow voters express relief that they could now feel proud to be Americans again after the many embarrassments of the Bush era. And that pride included repossessing those American symbols, particularly the flag, which had during the Bush era come to represent policies we disagree with. What do you think? Are you able to look at the symbols of patriotism differently now? Can you identify with Americana in a way you couldn’t before?