Why is it called “The Liberty Bell”?

It’s a dramatic and poignant story. July 4, 1776: the Second Continental Congress had been meeting in Philadelphia for over a year, trying to hammer out how to win the Revolutionary War and establish an independent nation. On that day they agreed to adopt the Declaration of Independence. The news spread quickly across the city, and an aged bell-ringer at the Pennsylvania State House decided to ring the Liberty Bell long and loud to proclaim independence. 

The old man was so invigorated by the news that he found the strength to pull the rope and set the massive bell ringing. In his zeal, he rang it so strongly that the bell cracked. Rather than symbolize potential dangers facing the new nation, the crack caused by the old man’s bell-ringing symbolized the strength of patriotic fervor that was coursing through the land. And ever since, few physical things have embodied American patriotic ideas more than the Liberty Bell. 

That’s the standard story. But, like the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, there’s more myth and misunderstanding in that story than actual historical fact. And, like the poem about Paul Revere, most of the symbolic history of the Liberty Bell comes from the 19th century, rather than the 18th century.

The bell was cast in London in 1752 and sent to the city of Philadelphia, who had ordered it. The casting included the inscription, “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (from the Bible, Leviticus 25:10). It was placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (which is now known as Independence Hall). Either the bell was poorly made or its first ringers and care-takers didn’t know what they were doing because the bell cracked very soon after it was rung the first time, and had to be recast at least twice before the 1770s.

Was it rung to proclaim independence on July 4, 1776? No. We know that it wasn’t because the Second Continental Congress didn’t really announce the Declaration until July 8th. On that day, lots of bells were rung to celebrate public readings of the Declaration, and the Liberty Bell was probably one of them. For the rest of the 18th century, the bell was rung on important occasions, because its size and placement in the Pennsylvania State House (where the Second Continental Congress had met) it had a certain historical importance for the young country.

But it didn’t start to attract the kind of attention and reverence that it has now until well into the 19th century. Two important things in the bell’s history happened between 1800 and 1850. The first is that it acquired its large crack during this period. Unfortunately, there is no fully convincing story of when it happened, although the different accounts have one thing in common — it cracked while announcing a major event or anniversary. 

Various stories have chalked it up to: the death of George Washington (1799), Lafayette’s return visit to the US (1824), the passage of the British Catholic Relief Act (1829), the death of Chief Justice John Marshall (1835), and one of the anniversaries of the Declaration of Independence in those early decades of the 19th century. The Marshall story gets the most press, although there is no good evidence for it.

The second important thing is that the bell got its popular name, the Liberty Bell, in the 1830s. Although the original foundry had stamped that Leviticus quote about liberty on the bell, it wasn’t called “The Liberty Bell” until 1835. And it wasn’t named that because of the Declaration of Independence. It was named because of slavery. 

An article entitled “The Liberty Bell” appeared in the Anti-Slavery Record (published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society) that year. The article complained that Philadelphians were not living up to the “Proclaim Liberty” part of the bell’s inscription and that they should become more vigorous abolitionists. The famous abolitionist journal, The Liberator (published by William Lloyd Garrison), sounded a similar note  in 1839 when it reprinted a Boston abolitionist poem called “The Liberty Bell.” The Liberator argued that the country had not lived up to Leviticus’ instructions to proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land.

The name stuck and the Liberty Bell’s iconic status grew throughout the rest of the 19th century. It was placed next to Lincoln’s casket in 1865, when the assassinated President’s body was displayed in Philadelphia on its trip from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois. And the Bell went on frequent publicity tours between 1885 and 1915. Unfortunately, it sustained further cracks during these trips, and pieces were chipped off by souvenir hunters. So the City of Philadelphia (who owned the Bell) stopped lending it out for tours. Since then, it has been housed in increasingly secure settings in the Liberty Bell Center next to Independence Hall, in Central Philadelphia.

I think you’ll agree that the Liberty Bell has had a long and fascinating life. And if we let the over-simplified version remain the dominant story, we risk losing sight of all the important roles the Bell has played in American history. Now go and proclaim that to all the inhabitants of the land.

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Gary Nash, The Liberty Bell.

Each year, more than two million visitors line up near Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and wait to gaze upon a flawed mass of metal forged more than two and a half centuries ago. Since its original casting in England in 1751, the Liberty Bell has survived a precarious journey on the road to becoming a symbol of the American identity, and in this masterful work, Gary B. Nash reveals how and why this voiceless bell continues to speak such volumes about our nation.

A serious cultural history rooted in detailed research, Nash’s book explores the impetus behind the bell’s creation, as well as its evolutions in meaning through successive generations. With attention to Pennsylvania’s Quaker roots, he analyzes the biblical passage from Leviticus that provided the bell’s inscription and the valiant efforts of Philadelphia’s unheralded brass founders who attempted to recast the bell after it cracked upon delivery from London’s venerable Whitechapel Foundry. Nash fills in the much-needed context surrounding the bell’s role in announcing the Declaration of Independence and recounts the lesser-known histories of its seven later trips around the nation, when it served as a reminder of America’s indomitable spirit in times of conflict. Drawing upon fascinating primary source documents, Nash’s book continues a remarkable dialogue about a symbol of American patriotism second only in importance to the Stars and Stripes.

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