September, 2001 to April 10, 2002
Welcome to Liberty on the Anvil at The Historical Society. This year marks three centuries since William Penn signed the instruments of government that formed the foundation of this commonwealth and this city. Like iron on an anvil, the liberties in Penn's Charter of Priviledges to the Pennsylvania Assembly and the Charter of the City of Philadelphia took shape from the heat and force of debates. What structures of governance would best serve liberty and justice in Pennsylvania has been a continual subject of contention ever since. This exhibit details some of those debates and disagreements and how they worked to define and redefine the meanings of liberty itself.
In his first frame of government for Pennsylvania in 1682, William Penn affirmed that, "any government is free to the people under it where the laws rule and the people are party to the laws." As each generation takes up its civic responsibilities, it becomes "party to the laws" precisely through debate, challenge and change.
For this exhibit, we follow Pennsylvania's governance from 1701 to the present, watching as new peoples come to settle in Pennsylvania, as they reach for their rights and liberties, and as the meaning of liberty stretches and grows to meet them. We hope that visitors will gain understanding of how the heat of debate and the force of change create and preserve liberty and self-government even into our own time.
William Penn's notion of building a government upon individual liberty became in time a founding principle of the United States, linking the United States Constitution and other constitutions around the world to Pennsylvania's charters. The Liberty Bell, one of the most potent and internationally recognized symbols of this legacy, has been on "anvils" of its own. The exhibit introduces the story of the Bell, which began its career in 1751, the 50th anniversary of the founding charters. True to its inspiring inscription, the Bell survived neglect and breakage to "Proclaim Liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof," becoming the symbol of new liberties from abolition to woman's suffrage to gay pride. The image of the Bell has also inspired generations of American soldiers fighting abroad and of new immigrants seeking opportunities here. Even more telling, perhaps, the Bell has remained, despite the pressures and exploitations of "stardom," a noble and moving symbol of the on-going national journey toward liberty and justice for all.