Famed historian David McCullough says that from the nation's earliest days, people often felt strongly (and wrongly, it usually turned out) that America was in decline.
Today, the pessimists may be right. For the first time, as McCullough himself observes, the teaching of history has been largely eliminated. As never before, many Americans have no idea how the nation originated, what principles formed its core, why those principles made us unique in the world, how we got where we are.
And that may doom us. If an entire generation is deliberately kept ignorant of such things, politicians will find it easier to subvert those principles, as we can see in the current scandal over revelations that our government has engaged in outrageous and illegal snooping and unwarranted searches in flagrant violation of the Bill of Rights.
Thusly down in the dumps as America's 237th birthday approached this week, I ran into a ray of sunshine when I encountered Jill Youngken, curator of the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown.
She provided some delicious historical minutia about the city's role in the momentous events of the 1770s, and how the course of American history easily could have been changed at Trout Hall, less than 100 paces from her museum's front door.
For all the griping I do about a lack of historical understanding in others, I confess I'd never heard this particular story, even though it involved the Lehigh Valley.
It's a story of how close we came to losing the Liberty Bell, although it wasn't called that at the time. I think that loss would have had a devastatingly demoralizing effect on the people who risked everything to separate America from one of the world's most depraved tyrants, King George III.
Everybody knows how the Liberty Bell, then called the "Old State House Bell," was taken from Philadelphia to save it from being melted down to make bullets — just three days before the Redcoats invaded the city in September 1777.
The bell had been rung on July 8, 1776, to observe the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. That same day, public readings took place and bells were rung at other locations, including Zion's Reformed Church in Allentown.
In 1777, the 2,080-pound bell, not yet cracked, was transported in a convey of 700 wagons, also carrying military stores, to the Lehigh Valley. It was hidden in a crawl space under Zion's Reformed Church. A full-size replica is now at the Liberty Bell Museum in the church basement.
At the other museum a few blocks away, Youngken was at least as upset as McCullough and I over the abandonment of history in our public schools.
"How smart does the government want people to be?" she wondered. "It's so easy to manipulate people when they are not aware of what's going on." She remembered, as I do, how students once began learning the basics of American history in the first grade and learned the crucial details later on.
The entrance of Youngken's museum is less than 100 paces from Trout Hall, built in 1770 as the home of James Allen, son of Judge William Allen, founder of Allentown. She said it was at Trout Hall, according James Allen's diary, that an amazing stroke of luck helped the American cause.
Allen, she said, shared some of the views of the Founding Fathers, but remained loyal to George III, which caused him to be despised as a "Tory" by many. At one point, a carriage carrying his wife and daughter was surrounded by militia members who threatened them with bayonets.
"They could be a bit on the nasty side," Youngken said of some patriots. Eventually, Allen was placed under what amounted to house arrest at Trout Hall. "In some ways I feel a lot of empathy for him," she said. "He was caught in something … it was a hard time. Everything was in flux. … He was being loyal to his king, to his government."
Trout Hall overlooks what was then called the King's Highway, she said, and one day, as recorded in his diary, Allen observed unusual "traffic" on that road, heading into Allentown, and recorded that hundreds of wagons were accompanied by officers and members of Congress. That, obviously, was the convoy from Philadelphia carrying a special bell, among other things.
Had Allen notified the Redcoats, it probably would have been the end of what we now call the Liberty Bell.
Allen was allowed to go to Philadelphia in 1778 and died there, perhaps of tuberculosis, at the age of 37. That year, the Liberty Bell also was returned to Philadelphia, where it cracked many years later.
It continued to be rung, but gently, with a mallet, until 1945, to mark the end of World War II, said Jerry Still, a tour guide at the Liberty Bell Museum. He said on special occasions, the museum's replica (the crack is only painted) is rung with gusto using its big clapper, and let me give it a whack.
The motto on the Liberty Bell and its replica: "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." That's from Leviticus 25:10, and I sometimes oppose the imposition of religious dogma on people, but not this time.
I am more concerned that the idea of proclaiming liberty, along with the appreciation of history, may be lost unless schools reverse course and start teaching meaningful history lessons again.
Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.