Editor’s Note: Last night at the National Constitution Center activist Michael Coard and historians Richard Beeman, Gary Nash and Richard Newman gathered to discuss Philadelphia’s longstanding, and complicated, legacy of liberty (click here to listen to the podcast). This essay by Dr. Nash, Cradle of Liberty, primed the discussion for the nearly 200 guests who attended. It is part of the Encyclopedia Project of Greater Philadelphia and is published in partnership with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, with support from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Philadelphians snort at the idea that a building in Boston—Faneuil Hall, a marketplace and meeting place–should presume to be called “the cradle of liberty” just because James Otis gave a fiery anti-British speech there in 1761. How can that compare to a city where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution of the United States were drafted, debated, revised, and signed—both in a brief period of eleven years?
Pride of place, if we can be generous for a moment, can be shared. Mark Twain once called Switzerland the Cradle of Liberty because alpine-born democracy had roots there too. Indeed the world is full of cradles of liberty, and some are now being violently rocked by young people hooked into social media as the Arab Spring turns the Middle East upside down.
Yet, Philadelphia is a special cradle of liberty.
Philadelphia & Liberty
It not only was where the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention did their epic work. Indeed, a century and more before, it was the city imagined by the visionary William Penn as a place where people of all classes, cultures, and ancestral backgrounds would learn to live together. Penn and his Quaker followers were determined to establish a unique colony free of the violence, intolerance, and corruption that were widespread on both sides of the Atlantic. Just a generation before, Puritans in Massachusetts were hanging Quakers on the Boston Common, and only a few years before Penn arrived they were bent on eradicating Wampanoag people from the Bay Colony
Philadelphia—to be called the “city of brotherly love”—never entirely lived up to its visionary founding principles; but nowhere else in the hemisphere did colonizing Europeans display such substantial toleration for religious and ethnic differences and such peaceful relations with Native Americans. “I deplore two principles in religion,” Penn wrote memorably; “obedience upon authority without conviction and destroying them that differ with me for Christ’s sake.” Most European visitors were astounded at such words and at how they took hold.
For a while, Penn’s vision of “putting the power in the people” was realized in good measure. And then, nearly a century after Penn’s arrival, Philadelphia was the place where those stirring words that ricocheted around the world—“inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “we the people”—were written and enshrined. For generations to come, a storm of strangers would cherish Philadelphia as the place where these founding documents were written and ratified.
But many of the strangers came unfree and involuntarily. From Africa, they would wait a long time before they saw Philadelphia as a cradle of liberty. But they insisted that liberty should be theirs as well and were not shy about invoking the principles espoused in the nation’s founding documents. “Search the legends of tyranny and find no precedent.” thundered James Forten, accomplished sailmaker, businessman, church leader, and philanthropist, in 1813. “It has been left for Pennsylvania to raise her ponderous arm against the liberties of the black, whose greatest boast has been that he resided in a state where civil liberty and sacred justice were administered alike to all.” Shaking the cradle of liberty, he warned, in his effort to ward off vicious laws restricting free black men and women, that “the story will fly from the north to the south, and the advocates of slavery, the traders in human blood, will smile contemptuously at the once boasted moderation and humanity of Pennsylvania.”
Two decades later, when “the cradle of liberty” motto was gaining currency, abolitionists in Boston and New York, seizing on the words from Leviticus inscribed on the brim of Philadelphia’s old State House bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof.” Rechristening the bell as “the Liberty Bell,” they shamed Philadelphia for lagging behind in the crusade to cleanse the nation of its deep-dyed sin of chattel bondage.
This put Philadelphia on the defensive, its cradle of liberty motto under attack. “Shame on you,” shouted one abolitionist pamphlet with the Liberty Bell on its cover. “Is it to be tyrants amid slaves that Americans, with liberty glowing on every page of their history, and the glorious Declaration of Independence upon their lips, have been found willing to degrade themselves?” Another charged: “Hitherto, the bell has not obeyed he inscription: and its peals have been a mockery, while one sixth of all inhabitants are in abject slavery.”
And with that, the bell tarnished, the cradle of liberty needed repairs. That came as Philadelphians of different political persuasions paraded their own brand of liberty—Protestant nativists who put the Liberty Bell on a pedestal, literally, in Independence Hall in 1855 while attacking Catholics; pro-labor advocates such as the wildly popular journalist George Lippard, who fought to protect blue collar liberty from exploitative capitalists; and black Philadelphians struggling for social justice and the right to vote. In a fast-growing, immigrant-filled city many wanted to claim part of the cradle.
In time, the city cemented its claim as the cradle of liberty. The millions who thronged to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence in1876 had plenty of encouragement in reaffirming that Penn’s green country town was the cradle of liberty. Ownership of the cradle was strengthened as surging crowds paraded down Broad Street for the centennial of the Constitutional Convention in 1877.
Then into the twentieth century people of all political persuasions came to Philadelphia to embrace the Liberty Bell as the preeminent talisman of freedom. Among them were women suffragists during the Great War for whom the “cradle of liberty” terminology was dishonestly used while women were denied the suffrage.
Similarly, when he was working to establish a National Freedom Day on which Americans could annually measure the distance between the nation’s glittering ideals and the somber realities on the ground, Richard R. Wright Sr., who had been born in slavery, knew just where to come. By laying a wreath in 1942 at the feet of the Liberty Bell, he furthered the notion of mending a splintered cradle of liberty. Civil rights activists repeated this ritual in the 1960s and 1970s by conducting sit-ins and demonstrations at Independence Hall
After World War II, leaders from newly independent countries—David Ben Gurion from Israel, Jomo Kenyetta from Kenya, a Ghanaian delegation, and many others—came not to New York or Boston but to Philadelphia, where they stood in Independence Hall and before the Liberty Bell to honor freedom’s birthplace that inspired their own quests for freedom. Cold War statesmen followed: Albert Tarchiani, the Italian ambassador to the U.S. in 1948; Ernst Reuter, mayor West Berlin, and Mohammed Mossedeq, premier of Iran, in 1951; Clement Atllee, prime minister of England in 1952; Nicholas Kallay and Mario Scelba, premiers of Hungary and Italy respectively in 1955.
The stream of international figures coming to pay their respects to Philadelphia as the cradle of liberty continues to the present day as they partake in the city’s historic role in building the nation. Yet the cradle still has cracks and blemishes. Perfecting it and keeping it in good repair requires an ongoing commitment to shoulder the responsibility of living up to the motto. This is the work of citizens, organizations, institutions, and politicians. Boasting about Philadelphia as the cradle of liberty is one thing; cradling liberty is another.
Dr. Gary B. Nash has taught at UCLA for over 40 years and is the author or co-author of over 25 books on history and history education. He is a founding member and council officer of the National Council for History Education and a former president of the Organization of American Historians.