Amid boos and chants and civil disobedience, fifty-by-29 inches of Old Testament bronze on the courthouse in West Chester disappeared behind 50-by-29 inches of blank plastic.

The dust-up about the Ten Commandments plaque is national news. And the news always manages to characterize the dispute as somehow out of place in Chester County. Images of peace-loving Quakers and leafy suburbs have been evoked. The defenders of the plaque, furthermore, say something original and deep-rooted in the borough has been torn away from its bosom by "outsiders."

The plaque is not original or even that old -- a courthouse stood there for 134 years without one. But the idea of feuding over the courthouse is the essence of old West Chester.

The courthouse in Chester County, moreso than in most places, has two historical identities. Like any court house, it was the home of the legal system, the seat of judges and the site of trials. But, almost more than that, it was the people's public parlor. It was where 19th century West Chester showed the world what it was, or thought it was.

Courts met there four times a year, for sessions lasting a few weeks. The rest of the time, the courthouse was everyone's property. West Chester was a town big enough to have a thriving social and political life, but too small to have a large meeting hall of its own. The courthouse served that purpose.

West Chester's main Baptist and Presbyterian churches both got their starts in preaching done in the courthouse in the 1820s. Chester County Horticultural Society showed off its prize vegetables in the grand jury room. Abolitionists met there, and mobs attacked them. Political parties nominated their candidates there. Private recruiters banged the drum there to rally men for the Civil War regiments.

The court house is the whole reason West Chester exists -- the town grew up around it. Landowners in that region lobbied the state government for years before the assembly, at the end of the Revolution, agreed to move the seat of Chester County. The old county seat was Chester; the new one after 1786 was a mud-splattered wide spot in the road beside a log tavern called The Turk's Head.

Over the years, as the village became a town, the citizens paid to beautify and improve the building -- or persuaded the commissioners to tax the rest of the county to do it. They rebuilt the courthouse in 1846, then expanded it, then expanded it again. They added a sundial and a clock; and in 1869 they erected a fountain in front with one spigot for people, one for horses, and a little trough at the bottom for dogs to drink from.

None of this was accomplished without a tempest of public indignation. One person's philanthropic gesture is the ugliest thing another person has ever seen. And even when two agree on the ends, they rarely think alike on how it should be done.

West Chester town meetings -- held in the courthouse, of course -- to resolve public issues were tumultuous: "Everything looked harmonious but the very first resolve brought down the whole house in a storm of opposition," one account from the 1850s reads. "Nobody was in favor of anything, and everybody was opposed to everything."

When the current courthouse building was erected in 1846, a huge row erupted between merchants on the east side of it and those on the south side. Each group wanted the front door to face their shops and taverns. The only solution was to give it two doors; and you can still see the shadow of one of them on the south side, though it was long ago walled up and made a window.

During the building, and rebuilding, and expanding of the courthouse, nobody proposed posting a Ten Commandments plaque. The plaque arrived in 1920. It belongs to the civic face of the courthouse's identity, not its legal side. A committee of citizens, headed by a Bible class teacher, bought it. It was put up with the consent of the county commissioners, but the idea wasn't theirs.

It was erected at a time of great fear among the Protestant majority in middle America, which felt threatened by the tide of immigration from southern and Eastern Europe and the nebulous menace of atheistic Bolshevism. Darwin's teachings seemed to derail traditional Bible-based morality.

None of this was explicit in the erection of the plaque. But the Ku Klux Klan played on these fears and claimed hundreds of members in West Chester in those years. There were intense fundamentalist revivals in the borough churches, under huge banners printed with: "Christ For West Chester: West Chester for Christ."

U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell, in his March decision about the plaque, wrote about separation of church and state. He wrote about the mistake government makes when it appears to endorse one religion over others.

These concerns were simply not part of the public discourse in West Chester in 1920. Nor was the idea that atheists (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or wiccans) could come to that building seeking justice, but meet effrontery at the door. Separation of church and state, like equal rights for all citizens, was a concept that lay dormant in America for many decades.

The plastic cover is temporary, one way or another. The order to take down the Ten Commandments has been stayed pending the county's appeal.

If the plaque comes down in the end, perhaps the county ought to replace it with something everyone can agree on. In the 1840s, one of the brightest and shrewdest lawyers in West Chester was John Hickman, later a U.S. Representative who was instrumental in getting Abe Lincoln nominated for president. When the current courthouse was being built, the town's lawyers were asked to suggest mottoes for it. Amid the high-flown Latin phrases, Hickman offered this: "Justice is Damned Uncertain Here."


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