Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Liberty Bell – capped by an eagle from Peale’s Museum – was enshrined in Independence Hall.

 

Each year thousands of Americans, as well as foreigners, travel to Philadelphia to visit the dozens of historic sites, structures and complexes associated with the nation’s independence. For many, their first stop is a small glass pavil­ion across the street from Inde­pendence Hall. Housed inside is one of America’s most cher­ished relics: the Liberty Bell. Although each individual brings with them their own, personal definition of liberty, this 2,080 pound bell has, for the last century and a half, given physical form to the struggles and hopes of all who come to see it. Cast during the mid-eighteenth century, the bell did not become an em­blem of liberty until 1839 when a group of Boston abolitionists adopted it as a symbol for their cause, christening it the Liberty Bell. This year Americans celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Liberty Bell, an object which has become, perhaps, the most powerful symbol of free­dom around the world.

Originally, the bell’s signifi­cance was limited to Pennsyl­vania. In 1751, Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Assembly, ordered a bell cast at London’s Whitechapel Foundry to serve the City of Philadelphia as a means of communication, gathering the citizens for cele­bration, mourning or for the news of the day. Norris also requested that “the Bell be cast with the following words well shaped in large letters round it: ‘By order of the Assembly of the province of Pensylvania [sic] for the Statehouse in the City of Philadelphia, 1752,'” and underneath, “‘Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof – Levit. XXV 10.'” The biblical verse evoked the Israelites’ jubilee celebration of their rebirth as a whole nation. The inscription would also be fit­ting for the Commonwealth as it not only embodied the prin­ciples that Norris and his fel­low assemblymen cherished most, but it would remind Pennsylvanians of their unique heritage: fifty years of peace, prosperity and religious tolera­tion as guaranteed by William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privi­leges, the final frame of gov­ernment adopted by the province.

By September 1752, the Whitechapel bell had “come ashore” in the colony and appeared to be “in good or­der.” However, after being transported to the Pennsylva­nia State House, where it was to be ceremonially placed in the tower, the bell was tested and a crack split the brim. Norris blamed the Whitechapel Foundry, claiming that “our judges have generally agreed that [the metal] was too high and brittle.” In desperate need of a communication device for the city, Norris de­cided to have the damaged bell repaired in Philadelphia by “two ingenious Work-Men,” John Pass and John Stow.

Stow was the only person in mid-eighteenth century Philadelphia to advertise the manufacture of brass products; the newspapers of the period do not reveal any bell founders in the entire colony. Appar­ently he must have had some experience with bell casting as it is unlikely that the Assembly would permit a novice to re­cast so large a bell. The qualifi­cations of John Pass are more uncertain but the appearance of his name, before Stow’s, on the recasting has led some historians to believe that he was more adept at bell­founding than Stow.

Sometime after February 1753, Pass and Stow molded a core from the Whitechapel bell to insure that their casting would be a true replica of the first, and then proceeded to shatter the bell with a sledge­hammer. By doing so, they fragmented the bell into small pieces that would fit into the furnace and melt with reason­able speed. To strengthen their casting, Pass and Stow added “one ounce and a half [of cop­per] for each pound of the old bell.” After two recastings, the bell – a composition of about seventy-seven percent copper and twenty-three percent tin­ – was completed. Like its prede­cessor, the Pass and Stow version also carried the in­scription from Leviticus around its shoulder, although the wording was changed slightly to “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof.” In June 1753, the bell was “raised in the Statehouse Steeple” where it would be used to call together members of the As­sembly for morning and after­noon sessions, to announce the hour of the opening of the Courts of Justice and to gather the people for a host of procla­mations, including the acces­sion of England’s King George III to the throne on February 21, 1761, and the ending of the French and Indian War on January 26, 1763.

During the late eighteenth century, the bell witnessed a host of significant political events, leading Americans of a later era to associate it with political liberty. The British Parliament’s levying of the Stamp Act in 1765 raised the issue of “taxation without representation” for the colonists – a tax which would set the revolutionary forces in motion. On September 9, 1765, the bel1 summoned the Assembly to the State House to consider the implications of, and possible actions against, the Stamp Act. A month later, on October 5, the bell mourn­fully proclaimed the arrival of the first stamps to be used in the execution of the loathsome act. Subsequent measures by the British government would strike directly at the heart of the American economy, insti­gating widespread resistance by the colonies. The mounting turmoil resulted in war.

On April 25, 1775, the Statehouse Bell called Phila­delphians to hear the news of the British attack at Lexington, Massachusetts. Nearly eight thousand people gathered in the courtyard that day, unani­mously passing a resolution “to associate, for the purpose of defending with arms, their lives, liberty and property against all attempts to deprive them of them.” Similar senti­ments throughout the colonies brought a host of delegates to Philadelphia in May 1775 when the bell announced the convening of a Second Conti­nental Congress to discuss the issue of independence from Great Britain. That Congress would adopt Thomas Jeffer­son’s Declaration of Indepen­dence on July 4, 1776. In order “that the people may be uni­versally informed of it,” inde­pendence would be publicly proclaimed four days later on the eighth. At noon that day, the bell called the populace to the State House courtyard to hear a prominent Philadel­phian, Col. John Nixon, pro­claim: “that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and indepen­dent states and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and of right ought to be, to­tally disolved.”

When the British captured the City of Philadelphia on September 27, 1777, they would not find the Statehouse bell. By that time it – along with the other bells of the city – was on its way north to Northampton Town, now present-day Allentown. Evac­uated in order to deprive the British of metal stores, the State House bell made its journey on a horse-drawn wagon, hidden from view by a load of stable refuse. After several days of travel, the wagon reached Bethlehem where, under the great weight of the bell, it “broke down in the street.” The bell was trans­ferred to another wagon and carted to Allentown where it was stored in the basement of the Zion High German Re­formed Church until the Brit­ish evacuated Philadelphia. A Philadelphia newspaper, the Pennsylvania Packet, recorded on August 22, 1778, that “the bells of this City are all re­turned safe and hung again.”

No reliable information exists explaining when exactly the bell cracked, but as with any patriotic relic, a host of legends and conflicting remi­niscences have evolved over the years. Some of these at­tempt to associate the crack with a single event but, hav­ing been written years or even decades after the fact, their accuracy is dubious at best.

The most popular tradition holds that the State House bell cracked on July 8, 1835, as it tolled to mourn the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. Little evidence exists to sup­port this claim. It is more prob­able that a hairline fracture occurred sometime during the early nineteenth century, ex­tended gradually and reached a “proportion during the July 8, 1835, tolling sufficient to kill its tone and prompt inspection.” The bell was used sparingly until 1846, when, “by direction of the Mayor,” it was ordered that “the fracture in old Independence Bell be drilled out for the purpose of ringing it on Washington’s Birthday.” The crack was pur­posefully widened and two bolts were placed at either end to prevent the two sides from vibrating together when the bell was rung. This repair, known “stop drilling,” ex­tended from the lip of the bell into its shoulder and is fre­quently mistaken by visitors as the crack itself. Having been repaired, the State House bell rang in honor of the birthday of Washington on February 22, 1846. Hours later, though, it hung “in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and forever dumb,” according to the Febru­ary 26, 1846, edition of the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

At about the same time that the bell ceased to function, its importance as a relic and a symbol associated the Declara­tion of Independence bur­geoned. During the 1830s, abolitionist groups grew politi­cally aggressive and found a new meaning in the bell’s biblical inscription, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.” In 1839, one of these groups from Boston, known as the “Friends of Freedom,” distributed a pamphlet entitled The Liberty Bell – the first time that the term “Liberty Bell” was used and the first time it was graphically portrayed. The bell was shown suspended from the branch of a tree and the ground beneath it is strewn with broken shackles. A sonnet, inspired by the bell, appeared in the abolitionist pamphlet.

It is no tocsin of affright we sound,
Summoning nations to the conflict dire; –
No fearful peal from cities wrapped in fire
Echoes, at our behest, the land around;-
Yet would we rouse our country’s utmost bound.

With this pamphlet, the friends of freedom inspired a host of other abolitionist groups to use the Liberty Bell as a symbol to further their mutual causes. In 1847, an­other anti-slavery group pub­lished a poem entitled, “The Liberty Bell,” a verse of which anticipated the Civil War.

Oh for a glorious peal at last
Of the true bell of Liberty!
To rend the air, and strike aghast
The monster might of Slavery.

By employing the Pennsyl­vania State House bell as a physical manifestation for their cause, the abolitionists inspired the use of the “Lib­erty Bell” throughout the country as a symbol of civil liberties for the next century and a half. Although removed from the State House tower in 1852 and placed on display inside the building, it contin­ued to gather people together in the name of liberty.

Between 1885 and 1919, the Liberty Bell was removed eleven times from Indepen­dence Hall and exhibited at expositions and in parades throughout the United States and into New England and across the Deep South. During this period, the bell traveled more than twenty-five thou­sand miles and was seen by millions of Americans who might otherwise never have become aware of its growing symbolism. Perhaps the most emotionally charged trip the bell made was in 1885 to New Orleans for the World’s Indus­trial and Cotton Exposition. Loaded onto a train that steamed slowly southward, it would help to mend whatever differences still existed be­tween North and South after the days of war and Recon­struction. Throngs pressed to see the bell, to touch it, to kiss it, wherever it stopped along its route. The ultimate tribute, however, was made by Jeffer­son Davis, the former presi­dent of the Confederacy, upon its arrival in Virginia. Strug­gling from his sick bed to see it, Davis pondered the bell and said, “I believe the time has come when reason should be substituted for passion and when we should be able to do justice to each other. Glorious old Bell, the son of a revolu­tionary soldier bows in rever­ence before you.” The bell’s appearance in New Orleans was a great success and its return trip to Philadelphia was marked with as much ritual as had been the journey south. Pomp and parade would also accompany the bell on its ten subsequent journeys to, among other places, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, St. Louis and San Francisco.

In this century a number of groups have looked to the Liberty Bell for inspiration. During the 1910s, the Women’s Suffrage movement had a replica of the Bell cast and wrapped it in chains until they secured the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote. The Civil Rights move­ment of the 1960s led Dr. Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. and Pres. John F. Kennedy to speak, on behalf of African-Americans, alongside the Liberty Bell. Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, in the continu­ing struggle for civil rights, also spoke near the bell during a recent visit to America. Dur­ing the Vietnam conflict, many conscientious objectors cited the Liberty Bell as a symbol of their freedom to choose be­tween military compliance and peaceful resistance to war. Handly surprisingly, the Viet­nam Veterans of Philadelphia have, more recently, used the bell as a symbol of the liberty they fought to preserve during wartime.

The diversity of these groups reminds all Americans that the Bell has served as a universal symbol of liberty for one hundred and fifty years. Its inscription does not limit the relic’s symbolic freedom to a specific country or to a par­ticular group of people, rather, it encourages mankind “Pro­claim liberty throughout all and land unto all the inhabit­ants thereof.” And so, while the Liberty Bell may appear to stand quietly in it little glass pavilion across the street from the birthplace of American Independence, it is assuring to know that its ring reverberates more clearly around the world today than at any other point in its history.

 

For Further Reading

Boland, Charles M. Ring in the Jubilee: The Epic of America’s Liberty Bell. Riverside, Conn: The Chatham Press, Inc., 1973.

Etting, Frank M. The Old State House. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1891.

The Franklin Institute. “Report of the Committee for the Preserva­tion of the Liberty Bell.” Journal of the Franklin Institute. (Feb­ruary 1963), Vol. 275, No. 2.

Paige, John C. The Liberty Bell of Independence National Historical Park: A Special Study. Philadelphia: Indepen­dence National Historical Park, 1985.

Rosewater, Victor. The Liberty Bell; Its History and Signifi­cance. New York: Appleton, 1926.

Sitarski, Stephen M. “The Cracked Bell.” Independence National Park Training Manual. Philadelphia: Independence National Historical Park, 1986.

Stoudt, Rev. John B. The Liberty Bells of Pennsylvania. Philadel­phia: William J. Campbell, 1930.

 

The author and editor wish to acknowledge the assistance of David Dutcher, Chief Historian, Independence National Historical Park, and Judith Goldschmidt, Historical Society of Pennsylva­nia, for their help in identifying and making possible the loan of illustrations to accompany this piece.

 

William C. Kashatus III of Phila­delphia received his bachelor of arts degree from Earlham College and his master of arts degree from Brown University in 1984. A teacher at Episcopal Academy, he has been employed by the Na­tional Park Service at Indepen­dence National Historical Park and at Valley Forge National Historical Park. His articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Quaker His­tory, Valley Forge Historical Journal and The Indiana Mili­tary Historical Journal. His most recent contribution to this magazine was “What Love Can Do: William Penn’s Holy Experi­ment in Education,” which ap­peared in the spring 1989 edition. He is a frequent contributor to Pennsylvania Heritage.