The Liberty Bell is Cracked

On November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln would give a two-minute speech of 275 words as a part of the dedication of a cemetery for those who were killed at the battle of Gettysburg. His immortal words that day framed the significance of the war for the American people. 

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

He would go on to speak of the dedication of the cemetery but would remind the nation that the sacrifice of both the living and the dead required a renewed commitment to the task that was not yet completed. He would go on to say:

that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth

Those words and ideas of Lincoln were not forged in 1863 but began many years before. The following story, highlights the foundational structure and the significance of the Liberty Bell that lead to those words given by President Abraham Lincoln

The Liberty Bell is Cracked


Having thus broken with the past and its acceptance of religious persecution and having laid the foundations for a new form of government that was intended to ensure religious and civil liberty for its citizens, the task of implementing such a government was before the nation’s leaders.  Washington, as our first President, confirmed his commitment to religious freedom in his famous letter to the Jewish Congregation in New Port, Rhode Island dated August 17, 1790:

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy, a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigoty no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support …

But the scourge of slavery rested upon the new nation. While slavery had been largely abolished in the North the situation was not as simple in the South, where hundreds of thousands of slaves provided the basis for the economy. Many saw the hypocrisy and acted upon it. But, it was to take a bloody battle, and the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives to abolish this curse. If Washington was the “Father” of our nation, Abraham Lincoln was to be its “redeemer.”

Many felt the troubling inconsistency of American colonists singing “we must not and will not be slaves” … and all the while having slaves themselves. The Golden Rule’s teaching of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” demanded a response.

The desire to end slavery was expressed early on by many of our Founders. Accordingly, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, although slaveholders, became convinced of the evils of the slave trade. Ultimately through their last will and testaments, each freed their slaves at Mt. Vernon and Monticello, respectively [note: Jefferson freed only a select few]. 

Gradually, the idea developed that the nation faced divine judgment because of its allowance of slavery. Reflecting on slavery and its impact on America, Jefferson worried about God ‘s impending providential judgment upon the new nation:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these Liberties are of the Gift of God?  That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.

George Mason, also a Virginian like Washington and Jefferson, was a delegate at the Constitutional Convention. In fact, he owned one of the largest plantations in Virginia, some 5,000 acres in size, utilizing 200 slaves. At the Constitutional Convention, he painfully admitted:

Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven upon a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.

Slavery in the North began to be abolished as early as 1774. A particularly moving and spiritual commentary on the times is seen in the Preamble to the Pennsylvania Proclamation of Emancipation, adopted March 1, 1780. Clearly as the Almighty God was the author of liberty for a nation, so too was He the Author of liberty for the human body and spirit, regardless of the color of one’s skin:

When we contemplate our abhorrence of that condition to which the arms and tyranny of Great Britain were exerted to reduce us, when we look back on the variety of dangers to which we have been exposed, and how miraculously our wants in many instances have been supplied, and our deliverances wrought, when even hope and human fortitude have become unequal to the conflict , we are unavoidably led to a serious and grateful sense of the manifold blessings which we have undeservedly received from the hand of that Being from whom every good and perfect gift cometh.

Impressed with these ideas, we conceive that it is our duty, and we rejoice that it is in our power, to extend a portion of that freedom to others which has been extended to us, and release them from the state of thralldom to which we ourselves were tyrannically doomed, and from which we have not every prospect of being delivered. it is not for us to inquire why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by differences in feature or complexion. it is sufficient to know that all are the work of the Almighty hand. We find in the distribution of the human species, that the most fertile as well as the most barren parts of the earth are inhabited by men of complexions different from ours, and from each other, from whence we may reasonably as well as religiously infer that He who placed them in their various situations has extended equally his care and protection to all, and that it becomes us not to counteract His mercies.

We esteem it a peculiar blessing granted to us that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization by removing, as much as possible, the sorrows of those who have lived in undeserved bondage, and from which, by the assumed authority of the kings of Great Britain, no  effectual  legal relief can be obtained. Weaned, by a Long course of experience, from those narrow prejudices and partialities we had imbibed, we find our hearts enlarged with kindness and benevolence toward men of all conditions and nations, and we conceive ourselves at this particular period extraordinarily called upon, by the blessings which we have received, to manifest  the sincerity of our profession, and to give a Substantial proof of our gratitude.

The original crack in the Liberty Bell was a small one, the result of metallurgical errors. Untended it grew so great that it could not be repaired. So, it was for slavery in the new nation. While slavery was mentioned in the draft of the Declaration of Independence as a “piratical warfare against human nature itself,” such condemnatory language was omitted from both the Declaration and the Constitution, reflecting the many concessions that had to be made to unite 13 reluctant colonies. Thus the “metallurgy” of the impure alloy of liberty and slavery in our nation ‘s first documents gave room for the practice of slavery to continue and grow until, like the Liberty Bell itself, the nation was severely fractured – by civil war.

Ironically, it was not the quest for religious or political freedom that gave this now famous bell its final and immortal name “Liberty Bell”, but the cause of the liberation of the African American from slavery. In 1839, an early abolitionist group called “Friends of Freedom” circulated a pamphlet with an engraving of the Bell encircled by the inscription captioned “Liberty Bell”. Six years later, a similar pamphlet appeared with a poem by Bernard Barton, in which he proclaimed:

Liberty’s Bell hath sounded its bold peal

Where Man holds Man in Slavery! At the sound –

Ye who are faithful ‘mid the faithless found,

Answer its summons with unfaltering zeal.

By 1876, the prestige of the Liberty Bell had grown so pervasively that as a part of the celebration of our nation’s centennial, the Bell was designated a national symbol of freedom.

Prolougue:  Lincoln understood the cost of moving outside the transcendent word of God. He also realized what would bring healing and blessing seen in his words, “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” This truth is also seen in his second inaugural address given forty-two days before his assassination. In that speech, he spoke of the providence of God in war and stated, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” 

In the end he once again points to God, “with malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” It is only in the transcendent power of God can a true justice and peace be achieved.

“The Liberty Bell is Cracked” was taken from the book, Proclaim Liberty: … a Broken Bell Rings Freedom to the World, written by The Providence Forum president Dr. Peter Lillback in 2001. It is taken from pages 45-48.

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