Bells Across the City

Later I’ll mention views of Philadelphia and surrounding towns and state my preference for these overlooks on Sunday evenings.  This is also when I like to hear bells ringing over the city.  These bells at that time have no competition from cars, pedestrians, buses, and trains    They can be clearly heard and  echoes prolong their life.  It is as if the bells are trying to restate or emphasize certain key points at a time when the city is most quiet.    In other words, when there is the least amount of pressing business, why not think about ideas.  The two bells I am referring to are City Hall in Philadelphia and the Robert A. Taft Carillion about half way between Union Station and the Capitol in Washington.  Each carries separate but somewhat related meaning.

City Hall

William Penn looks on a northeasterly direction atop City Hall.  Since he walked up there in  1894,  his view has remained broad and intact.  It is a good thing Penn was not looking west;  all those new buildings in Penn Center over the past 20 years would cause him some problems.  Those bells remind me of certain principles of Quakerism and how liberal, even radical, they were at the time.  To be specific:

1. Peaceful Treatment of the Indians. Benjamin West’s painting of William Penn and his treaty making with native Americans was romanticized.  Nevertheless, the Quakers paid or made some amends for all of the land taken.  The Philadelphia area was one of the few places in the country with minimal  problems fighting Indians or atrocities from either side. 

2. Universal Public Education.  Quakers established education for all children,  recognizing that a well informed citizenry is the best safeguard of liberty.

3. Religious Tolerance.  Quakers founded Philadelphia for freedom to practice their religious beliefs. Unlike  other colonies, they extended this freedom to other religions.    Every citizen could without fear follow a religion or have none at all.   By contrast in Boston,  Puritans also came for religious freedom but did not allow it for anyone else.

4. Urban Planning.  Quakers laid out the city in an  easy to travel grid and made provisions for sanitation, police protection, and street lighting.

At the time of our separation from Britain , Quakers were advocating

5. The Abolition of the Slavery.  They, like everyone else, were white supremacists and did advocate colonization of former slaves in Africa.

6. Universal Female Suffrage.  They believed in extending the franchise to  women with no property restrictions.

Congress dedicated the Robert A. Taft Memorial in the spring of 1958.  He holds a place among the five great Senators in our history;  the four others were Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Robert LaFollette.  Personally I consider either Taft or Senator George Norris of Nebraska the best Senators in the 20th century.  Both were midwesterners, Republicans, men of high ideals, but far different in  outlook.

Senator Taft has the name Mr. Conservative or Mr. Republican with ample justification.   The Senator viewed all federal expenditures with suspicion saying they must pass the test of valid need.  This was true of defense as well as social legislation.  He was especially skeptical about  welfare programs and coined the term “creeping socialism.”

Nevertheless, Taft was never doctrinaire in his approach.  He co-sponsored  The Taft-Ellender-Wagner landmark  Housing Act of 1949 and additional legislation involving education, veterans benefits, and medical care.  Never a good speaker, he still made his points clearly in Senate debate and was a tough negotiator.  The ultimate test of his fortitude was when Congress passed  the Taft-Heartly Act over President Truman’s veto in 1947.  This intent of this law was to curb excesses in labor power that occurred during World War II and was a reaction to a series of strikes in the coal and steel industries. thereafter.

After the bill’s passage, Senator Taft could have gone to his home town of Cincinnati, one of the most conservative cities in America.   His supporters would have arranged a meeting among business leaders.   Senator Taft  could have given one of his rather dry speeches on the importance of the free enterprise system and tell these people how great they were. 

Instead he visited the industrialized cities of Youngstown, Akron, and Steubenville under death threats to explain the law to workers.   He had one bodyguard which was like scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush.  I do not know how many workers Taft convinced he was not anti-labor; yet no one doubted his courage. Senator Taft was an authentic conservative who believed in the separation of church and state, a balanced budget, individual responsibility, and the government’s role in helping every American to get a better standard of living.  

The eerie sound of bells reminds me that constant vigilance, even in slack periods, is the price of freedom.   Lose sight of that too often and we will realize  that one day they have eroded away.      


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