History of The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell is an iconic symbol of American independence, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Formerly placed in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (now renamed Independence Hall), the bell today is located in the Liberty Bell Center in Independence National Historical Park. The bell was commissioned from the London firm of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) in 1752, and was cast with the lettering "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," a Biblical reference from the Book of Leviticus (25:10). The bell first cracked when rung after its arrival in Philadelphia, and was twice recast by local workmen John Pass and John Stow, whose last names appear on the bell. In its early years, the Liberty Bell was used to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions and to alert citizens to public meetings and proclamations.
No immediate announcement was made of the Second Continental Congress's vote for independence, and thus the bell could not have rung on July 4, 1776, at least not for any reason related to that vote. Bells were rung to mark the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776, and while there is no contemporary account of the Liberty Bell ringing, most historians believe it was one of the bells rung. After American independence was secured, it fell into relative obscurity for some years. In the 1830s, the bell was adopted as a symbol by abolitionist societies, who dubbed it the "Liberty Bell." Similarly suffragists adopted the bell as a symbol, calling it the "justice bell."
The bell acquired its distinctive large crack sometime in the early 19th century—a widespread story claims it cracked while ringing after the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835. The bell became famous after an 1847 short story claimed that an aged bell-ringer rang it on July 4, 1776, upon hearing of the Second Continental Congress's vote for independence. Despite the fact that the bell did not ring for independence on that July 4, the tale was widely accepted as fact, even by some historians. Beginning in 1885, the City of Philadelphia, which owns the bell, allowed it to go to various expositions and patriotic gatherings. The bell attracted huge crowds wherever it went, additional cracking occurred and pieces were chipped away by souvenir hunters. The last such journey occurred in 1915, after which the city refused further requests.
After World War II, the city allowed the National Park Service to take custody of the bell, while retaining ownership. The bell was used as a symbol of freedom during the Cold War and was a popular site for protests in the 1960s. It was moved from its longtime home in Independence Hall to a nearby glass pavilion on Independence Mall in 1976, and then to the larger Liberty Bell Center adjacent to the pavilion in 2003. The bell has been featured on coins and stamps, and its name and image have been widely used by corporations.
Founding (1751 to 1753)
Philadelphia's city bell had been used to alert the public to proclamations or civic danger since the city's 1682 founding. The original bell hung from a tree behind the Pennsylvania State House (now known as Independence Hall) and was said to have been brought to the city by its founder, William Penn. In 1751, with a bell tower being built in the Pennsylvania State House, civic authorities sought a bell of better quality, which could be heard at a greater distance in the rapidly expanding city. Isaac Norris, speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, gave orders to the colony's London agent, Robert Charles, to obtain a "good Bell of about two thousands pound weight".
We hope and rely on thy care and assistance in this affair and that thou wilt procure and forward it by the first good oppo as our workmen inform us it will be much less trouble to hang the Bell before their Scaffolds are struck from the Building where we intend to place it which will not be done 'till the end of next Summer or beginning of the Fall. Let the bell be cast by the best workmen & examined carefully before it is Shipped with the following words well shaped around it vizt. By Order of the Assembly of the Povince [sic] of Pensylvania [sic] for the State house in the City of Philadelphia 1752, and Underneath.
Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.-Levit. XXV. 10.
Charles duly ordered the bell from Thomas Lester of the London bellfounding firm of Lester and Pack (today the Whitechapel Bell Foundry) for the sum of £150 13s 8d, (equivalent to £21,145.06 today) including freight to Philadelphia and insurance. It arrived in Philadelphia in August 1752. Norris wrote to Charles that the bell was in good order, but they had not yet sounded it, as they were building a clock for the State House's tower. The bell was mounted on a stand to test the sound, and at the first strike of the clapper, the bell's rim cracked. The episode would be used to good account in later stories of the bell; in 1893, former President Benjamin Harrison, speaking as the bell passed through Indianapolis, stated, "This old bell was made in England, but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men." Philadelphia authorities tried to return it by ship, but the master of the vessel which had brought it was unable to take it on board.
A painting in which a man in working clothes shows off the Liberty Bell to a number of well-dressed people, who are conferring. A woman prepares to tap the bell with a hammer.
The Bell's First Note by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.
Two local founders, John Pass and John Stow, offered to recast the bell. Though they were inexperienced in bell casting, Pass had headed the Mount Holly Iron Foundry in neighboring New Jersey and came from Malta, which had a tradition of bell casting. Stow, on the other hand, was only four years out of his apprenticeship as a brass founder. At Stow's foundry on Second Street, the bell was broken into small pieces, melted down, and cast into a new bell. The two founders decided that the metal was too brittle, and augmented the bell metal by about ten percent, using copper. The bell was ready in March 1753, and Norris reported that the lettering (which included the founders' names and the year) was even clearer on the new bell than on the old.
City officials scheduled a public celebration with free food and drink for the testing of the recast bell. When the bell was struck, it did not break, but the sound produced was described by one hearer as like two coal scuttles being banged together. Mocked by the crowd, Pass and Stow hastily took the bell away and again recast it. When the fruit of the two founders' renewed efforts was brought forth in June 1753, the sound was deemed satisfactory, though Norris indicated that he did not personally like it. The bell was hung in the steeple of the State House the same month.
The reason for the difficulties with the bell is not certain. The Whitechapel Foundry, still in business today, takes the position that the bell was either damaged in transit or was broken by an inexperienced bell ringer, who incautiously sent the clapper flying against the rim, rather than the body of the bell. In 1975, the Winterthur Museum conducted an analysis of the metal in the bell, and concluded that "a series of errors made in the construction, reconstruction, and second reconstruction of the Bell resulted in a brittle bell that barely missed being broken up for scrap". The Museum found a considerably higher level of tin in the Liberty Bell than in other Whitechapel bells of that era, and suggested that Whitechapel made an error in the alloy, perhaps by using scraps with a high level of tin to begin the melt instead of the usual pure copper. The analysis found that, on the second recasting, instead of adding pure tin to the bell metal, Pass and Stow added cheap pewter with a high lead content, and incompletely mixed the new metal into the mold. The result was "an extremely brittle alloy which not only caused the Bell to fail in service but made it easy for early souvenir collectors to knock off substantial trophies from the rim".
Early days (1754 to 1846)
Drawing of a handsome building with a bell tower and a wing on each side. Horse-drawn carriages are seen in the street.
Independence Hall as it appeared in the 1770s
Dissatisfied with the bell, Norris instructed Charles to order a second one, and see if Lester and Pack would take back the first bell and credit the value of the metal towards the bill. In 1754, the Assembly decided to keep both bells; the new one was attached to the tower clock while the old bell was, by vote of the Assembly, devoted "to such Uses as this House may hereafter appoint." The Pass and Stow bell was used to summon the Assembly. One of the earliest documented mentions of the bell's use is in a letter from Benjamin Franklin to Catherine Ray dated October 16, 1755: "Adieu. The Bell rings, and I must go among the Grave ones, and talk Politiks. [sic]" The bell was rung in 1760 to mark the accession of George III to the throne. In the early 1760s, the Assembly allowed a local church to use the State House for services and the bell to summon worshipers, while the church's building was being constructed. The bell was also used to summon people to public meetings, and in 1772, a group of citizens complained to the Assembly that the bell was being rung too frequently.
Despite the legends that have grown up about the Liberty Bell, it did not ring on July 4, 1776 (at least not for any reason connected with independence), as no public announcement was made of the Declaration of Independence. When the Declaration was publicly read on July 8, 1776, there was a ringing of bells, and while there is no contemporary account of this particular bell ringing, most authorities agree that the Liberty Bell was among the bells that rang. However, there is some chance that the poor condition of the State House bell tower prevented the bell from ringing. According to John C. Paige, who wrote a historical study of the bell for the National Park Service, "We do not know whether or not the steeple was still strong enough to permit the State House bell to ring on this day. If it could possibly be rung, we can assume it was. Whether or not it did, it has come to symbolize all of the bells throughout the United States which proclaimed Independence."
If the bell was rung, it would have been most likely rung by Andrew McNair, who was the doorkeeper both of the Assembly and of the Congress, and was responsible for ringing the bell. As McNair was absent on two unspecified days between April and November, it might have been rung by William Hurry, who succeeded him as doorkeeper for Congress. Bells were also rung to celebrate the first anniversary of Independence on July 4, 1777.
A large bell is seen tied to a wagon. Soldiers in Revolutionary War uniforms stand by.
The Liberty Bell is paraded through the streets of Philadelphia, 1908, in a recreation of its 1777 journey to Allentown.
Reproduction of a watercolor by Davis Gray of the arrival of the Liberty Bell at Zions Church, in Northampton Towne, (later Allentown) Pennsylvania on 24 September 1777. (Holdings of the Lehigh County Historical Society)
After Washington's defeat at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, the revolutionary capital of Philadelphia was defenseless, and the city prepared for what was seen as an inevitable British attack. Bells could easily be recast into munitions, and locals feared the Liberty Bell and other bells would meet this fate. The bell was hastily taken down from the tower, and sent by heavily guarded wagon train to the town of Bethlehem. Local wagoneers transported the bell to the Zion German Reformed Church in Northampton Town, now Allentown, where it waited out the British occupation of Philadelphia under the church floor boards. It was returned to Philadelphia in June 1778, after the British departure. With the steeple of the State House in poor condition (the steeple was subsequently torn down and later restored), the bell was placed in storage, and it was not until 1785 that it was again mounted for ringing.
Placed on an upper floor of the State House, the bell was rung in the early years of independence on the Fourth of July and on Washington's Birthday, as well as on Election Day to remind voters to hand in their ballots. It also rang to call students at the University of Pennsylvania to their classes at nearby Philosophical Hall. Until 1799, when the state capital was moved to Lancaster, it again rang to summon legislators into session. When the State of Pennsylvania, having no further use for its State House, proposed to tear it down and sell the land for building lots, the City of Philadelphia purchased the land, together with the building, including the bell, for $70,000, equal to $976,020 today. In 1828, the city sold the second Lester and Pack bell to St. Augustine's Roman Catholic Church, which was burned down by an anti-Catholic mob in the Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844. The remains of the bell were recast; the new bell is now located at Villanova University.
It is uncertain how the bell came to be cracked; the damage occurred sometime between 1817 and 1846. The bell is mentioned in a number of newspaper articles during that time; no mention of a crack can be found until 1846. In fact, in 1837, the bell was depicted in an anti-slavery publication—uncracked. In February 1846 Public Ledger reported that the bell had been rung on February 23, 1846 in celebration of Washington's Birthday (as February 22 fell on a Sunday, the celebration occurred the next day), and also reported that the bell had long been cracked, but had been "put in order" by having the sides of the crack filed. The paper reported that around noon, it was discovered that the ringing had caused the crack to be greatly extended, and that "the old Independence Bell...now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and forever dumb".
The most common story about the cracking of the bell is that it happened when the bell was rung upon the 1835 death of the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall. This story originated in 1876, when the volunteer curator of Independence Hall, Colonel Frank Etting, announced that he had ascertained the truth of the story. While there is little evidence to support this view, it has been widely accepted and taught. Other claims regarding the crack in the bell include stories that it was damaged while welcoming Lafayette on his return to the United States in 1824, that it cracked announcing the passing of the British Catholic Relief Act 1829, and that some boys had been invited to ring the bell, and inadvertently damaged it. David Kimball, in his book compiled for the National Park Service, suggests that it most likely cracked sometime between 1841 and 1845, either on the Fourth of July or on Washington's Birthday.
The Pass and Stow bell was first termed "the Liberty Bell" in the New York Anti-Slavery Society's journal, Anti-Slavery Record. In an 1835 piece, "The Liberty Bell", Philadelphians were castigated for not doing more for the abolitionist cause. Two years later, in another work of that society, the journal Liberty featured an image of the bell as its frontispiece, with the words "Proclaim Liberty". In 1839, Boston's Friends of Liberty, another abolitionist group, titled their journal The Liberty Bell. The same year, William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery publication The Liberator reprinted a Boston abolitionist pamphlet containing a poem entitled "The Liberty Bell", which noted that, at that time, despite its inscription, the bell did not proclaim liberty to all the inhabitants of the land.
Becoming a symbol (1847 to 1865)
An elderly man looks excitedly around as a boy enters a bell chamber. The old man holds a rope leading to the Liberty Bell in his hand.
The Bellman Informed of the Passage of the Declaration of Independence: an 1854 depiction of the story of the Liberty Bell being rung on July 4, 1776
A great part of the modern image of the bell as a relic of the proclamation of American independence was forged by writer George Lippard. On January 2, 1847, his story "Fourth of July, 1776" appeared in Saturday Review magazine. The short story depicted an aged bellman on July 4, 1776, sitting morosely by the bell, fearing that Congress would not have the courage to declare independence. At the most dramatic moment, a young boy appears with instructions for the old man: to ring the bell. The story was widely reprinted and closely linked the Liberty Bell to the Declaration of Independence in the public mind. The elements of the story were reprinted in early historian Benson J. Lossing's The Pictorial Field Guide to the Revolution (published in 1850) as historical fact, and the tale was widely repeated for generations after in school primers.
In 1848, with the rise of interest in the bell, the city decided to move it to the Assembly Room (also known as the Declaration Chamber) on the first floor, where the Declaration and United States Constitution had been debated and signed. The city constructed an ornate pedestal for the bell. The Liberty Bell was displayed on that pedestal for the next quarter-century, surmounted by an eagle (originally sculpted, later stuffed). In 1853, President Franklin Pierce visited Philadelphia and the bell, and spoke of the bell as symbolizing the American Revolution and American liberty. At the time, Independence Hall was also used as a courthouse, and African-American newspapers pointed out the incongruity of housing a symbol of liberty in the same building in which federal judges were holding hearings under the Fugitive Slave Act.
In February 1861, the President-elect, Abraham Lincoln, came to the Assembly Room and delivered an address en route to his inauguration in Washington DC. In 1865, Lincoln's body was returned to the Assembly Room after his assassination for a public viewing of his body, en route to his burial in Springfield, Illinois. Due to time constraints, only a small fraction of those wishing to pass by the coffin were able to; the lines to see the coffin were never less than 3 miles (4.8 km) long. Nevertheless, between 120,000 and 140,000 people were able to pass by the open casket and then the bell, carefully placed at Lincoln's head so mourners could read the inscription, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof."