Lessons from Philadelphia

The air has been thick with the rhetoric of calls to “Take our country back,” and for actions to rally “We the people, against the ruling class elites.”  Sarah Palin has spoken about “The patriots who will restore America’s constitutionally based agenda.”  Those who have dubbed themselves as “constitutional conservatives” are making a lot of noise, but I am not sure what they are saying.  I doubt that their claims will get any clearer as the impending mid-term election ratchets discourse up another decibel.  So I am thankful for the day trip that I took to Philadelphia at the  end of the summer.  It has made me feel me grounded and connected to those people who have been so glibly invoked.

The reason for the trip was my son’s sixteenth birthday.  He’s interested in history.  In that town, there’s plenty of it.  The top spots of the “old city” were jammed with throngs of visitors.  It was fascinating to see people connecting with the origins of their government.  There was a kind of gee-whiz Capraesque awe about what it took to get this country off the ground.

The guided tours of Independence Hall and Carpenters’ Hall (the meeting place for the First Continental Congress) offered plenty of information on the Founding Fathers.  Without a doubt, they were a contentious lot—each convinced that their point of view had the greatest validity.  Alexander Hamilton led those emulating the British model and a strong central government.  Thomas Jefferson supported the French prototype, with an emphasis on states’ rights.

Ironically, front and center in one of the exhibits was the James Madison quote of 1788 stating, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”  Somehow, I don’t think that will be on a Tea Party placard anytime soon.

A testimony to the American experiment in democracy took place on March 4th, 1797, when it was time to transfer executive power from George Washington to John Adams.  Foreign dignitaries voyaged to Philadelphia to witness the event.  Their primary objective was to see if  the young nation could successfully change leaders without violence or falling back to the “born to rule” system.

For me, the most moving exhibition was at the new Liberty Bell Center.  The famous artifact has been rehoused, surrounded by information and learning panels that deal honestly with America’s growing pains.  It is explained that in the 1800s, the Abolitionists gave what was then known as the State House bell the new appellation, The Liberty Bell.  It was a name that stuck, and those fighting slavery promoted it as a symbol of the contradictions between the ideals and promises of the Revolution—and the reality of four millions slaves on American soil at the outset of the Civil War.

One hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, during the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia on July 4, 1876, Susan B. Anthony endeavored to read the Declaration of Rights of the Women of the United States at the proceedings.  Forty-four years later, the suffragettes used the image of the Liberty Bell in their campaign for the right to vote.

During the month of September, I felt emotionally deflated with the ongoing news story about Terry Jones and his “International Burn a Koran Day.” In the past century, our country has been through low points before. The finger pointing at Japanese-Americans and their ensuing internment, the McCarthy Era, and the ugly epithets screamed at black children trying to attend schools are nadirs that come to mind.  Pastor Jones can trace his misguided religious demagoguery straight back to Father Coughlin’s incendiary radio shows of the 1930s.

Yet, despite it all, the underpinnings of our country’s principals remain a beacon throughout the world.  That’s why visitors from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama have paid homage to the Liberty Bell and the values that it stands for.

When others invoke the name of the Founding Fathers to support their specific ideologies , I’ll choose to think of the Liberty Bell and its Biblical inscription (Leviticus 25:10):

“Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

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