"In a democracy, citizens cannot sit on the sidelines. They have to get into the arena, as Teddy Roosevelt said, and participate," Clinton said. "Sometimes, it can get pretty noisy."
She referred, though, not to the shouts and chants that carried into the outdoor ceremony at the National Constitution Center -- "Free the Constitution!" a man yelled -- but to the political and partisan debates of the modern age.
She did not say whether she would run for president. She largely avoided the Syria crisis, saying that the use of chemical weapons demanded a strong response and that the heated national debate over options was good for democracy.
Other remarks centered on America's leading role in the world, the glory of the Constitution, and a call for an involved citizenry.
"I am honored and overwhelmed by this extraordinary event," she said.
Throughout the ceremony, attended by about 1,300 gathered on the front lawn of the Constitution Center, 12 to 14 sign-waving protesters kept up a chorus.
Mayor Nutter acknowledged the obvious intrusion into the center's most important annual event.
"We are experiencing, everyone, their freedom of speech, and that is a good thing in the United States of America, to be able to have that," Nutter said.
Standing on the south side of Arch Street, directly across from the center, men and women held up placards painted to look as if they had been streaked with blood and bearing the word Benghazi.
They referenced the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the American diplomatic mission in Libya, in which four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
"I'm appalled that she is receiving the Liberty Medal," said Bernadette Repisky of Warminster. "They're still lying to the American people. And she wants to be president? No way."
Repisky, 50, said she had come on her own, though other demonstrators belonged to a tea party group, the Delaware County Patriots.
As Clinton spoke of the need for active citizenship, about 100 people were already engaged in it, gathering at the Finnigan's Wake pub to cheer her remarks and urge her to run for president during a rally organized by the super-PAC Ready for Hillary.
There was applause, war whoops, and a chant or two of "2016!" People laughed knowingly when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Constitution Center chairman, mentioned the wisdom of voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, the states that hold some of the earliest presidential nominating contests.
"Personally, I think it's high time we had a female president," said Deb Mandour of York County, who traveled 2 1/2 hours to attend. "I'm hoping she'll run again. I think she will."
At the Constitution Center, government officials, dignitaries, and musicians celebrated Clinton in word and song.
Fifty performers from the Bright Hope Baptist Community Singers and the Princeton Girlchoir sang "I Believe I Can Fly." Aimee Mann sang, too. Video tributes were offered by everyone from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to the actor Ted Danson, from tennis legend Billie Jean King to Queen Rania of Jordan. Even Gov. Corbett, a Republican, had a kind word to say about Clinton.
She received the medal in recognition of her career in public service and her continuing advocacy on behalf of women and girls around the globe. Last year the Liberty Medal was awarded to Muhammad Ali. The medal comes with a $100,000 prize.
Clinton, 65, ended a four-year term as the nation's 67th secretary of state on Feb. 1. Her career included eight years in the Senate and eight in the White House as first lady. Since stepping down as secretary, she has been seen as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
Ready for Hillary is up and operating, signing up 800,000 supporters and raising $1.25 million in the first half of the year. In June, Clinton addressed the topic of her candidacy while not addressing it, saying she hoped the nation would see a female president in her lifetime.
The backing from donors, the coy responses to questions about her plans, the maintenance of a national profile -- all are part of a prepresidential campaign machinery that must be kept operating even if the ultimate decision is not to run, said professor Matthew Kerbel, chairman of the political science department at Villanova University, where he studies the presidency.
"The only person who really knows is Hillary, and she's not talking," he said. "But if she were running for president, that's exactly what she would do."
If Clinton runs, Kerbel said, she'll be formidable.
Many Democrats believe that electing the nation's first female president would be an appropriate follow-up to having seated the first African American. That was on the minds of many who attended the medal ceremony.
University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann, a center board member, noted that only a few decades ago, it would have been impossible to imagine a woman at the head of a major university, as secretary of state, and as "something many of us can't wait to celebrate, the first woman president of the United States."
Inquirer staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald contributed to this article.