Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


The other side of liberty

At the very moment they were in Philadelphia declaring that all men are created equal, many of America's Founding Fathers were slave owners. Activists are now demanding a fuller accounting at democracy's birthplace.

(Page 4 of 4)



Take the Rev. Jeffrey Leath of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, just a few blocks from the mall. He was a point person for efforts to do more with the Dexter homesite.

Skip to next paragraph

Mr. Leath says it was "a triumph of reason" when the center decided to excavate the site in February. He anticipates discussion forums that will deepen people's understanding of Philadelphia's complex story.

"At first, the mall projects may be a little less of a tribute to what our nation was and more a place of what we can become," he says. "I have a lot of hope, but this is not a completed task."

The Liberty Bell's link to abolition

How did the bell that rang out in Philadelphia at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence come to be called the "Liberty Bell"?

If you think we have the Founding Fathers to thank for that moniker, think again. The famous bell didn't get its name until about 50 years later, when abolitionists in Philadelphia were pushing to end slavery. They dubbed it the Liberty Bell because of the inscription it bears from the Bible (Leviticus 25:10): "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."

The National Park Service, which has charge of the bell, has long made that story known. But it has not addressed what the abolitionists were fighting against. With urging from historians and members of the local African-American community, officials altered plans for the new Liberty Bell Center, set to open in October. Now it will present a fuller picture of slavery and other aspects of American history that color the notion of liberty.

The bell is "a symbol for liberty attained, in some cases, but in others, liberty not yet achieved," says Park Service spokesman Phil Sheridan.

Some activists say they are still lobbying to include information about a former Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Isaac Norris, who commissioned the bell in 1751. They want to point out the irony that he was involved in the slave trade.

Despite such unresolved issues, "a highly triumphal scenario has been replaced by a much more realistic and balanced presentation of the Liberty Bell and its long history," says Gary Nash, a Colonial historian who has participated in community discussions with the National Park Service.

The Constitution and compromise

One-fifth of the population was enslaved in 1787, when delegates met in Philadelphia to draft the US Constitution. In Southern states, that ratio was 1 in 3. Delegates who wanted to eliminate slavery bowed to those who wanted to keep it, in exchange for forming a strong central government.

The so-called slavery compromise of the Constitution consisted of three parts:

• The three-fifths clause. Article I, Section 2 didn't use the word "slaves," but in outlining how to number the population for purposes of congressional representation and taxation, it counts "free Persons ... and ... three-fifths of all other persons."

• The extension of slavery. Article I, Section 9 prohibited Congress from outlawing the slave trade before 1808. It did allow a $10 per-person tax to be "imposed on such Importation."

• The fugitive-slave clause. Article IV, Section 2 required that runaways be returned to their owners, even if captured in a state that had abolished slavery.

"In effect, the delegates were endorsing slavery when they refused to pass a motion condemning the institution," writes Yale historian Robert Johnston in "The Making of America."

Because slave traders had only a 20-year window, they picked up the pace, says Ira Berlin, a historian at the University of Maryland. Between 1787 and 1808, when Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, 25,000 Africans were brought forcibly to the United States, he says.

The results were devastating for generations of people of African ancestry in America, including those who were free. "One little-known tragedy is that ... by the 1820s, Northern states that were free of slavery rewrote their Constitutions to strip rights away from people of color," says Prof. Gary Nash of the University of California, Los Angeles. "The compromise gave them 'permission' for racism and was indeed the bitter harvest of the Founding Fathers."

Without this compromise, observers note, there would have been no union. But the country paid a high price with the Civil War, when 600,000 died. Bridging the black-white divide the compromise perpetuated is still an unfinished project.

Permissions