(Photo credit: Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, courtesy Kim Wood, Flickr Creative Commons)
As a newcomer to America, I found the Liberty Bell to be a bit of an enigma when I first saw it. It’s a biggish bell with a big crack in it. Sure, it’s old, but not that old. It’s a sacred relic, supposedly beloved by all Americans. It’s got a big crack in it. It had something to do with the American Revolution, but then so did lots of other things that are still around today. The word “Liberty” features prominently on its side. It’s put on display so people can go right up to it. And it’s got a big crack in it. Maybe it has something to do with the big crack.
It is a strange type of memorial: a cracked bell that stands for American freedom. Nothing about this symbol is straightforward or easy to explain. Yet when park guides begin working at Independence NHP one of the first historical artifacts they have to learn how to interpret is the Liberty Bell. It’s a surprisingly hard task. Why? Well, for a start, most of the millions of people who come to see the bell every year can’t articulate to themselves why they’ve come to see it. They all really want to have their picture taken in front of the bell (that’s allowed) and most of them would like to touch the bell (that’s not). But why? If you ask them why they’re there, you often see a blank look come over their faces. I don’t blame them for that. I used to have zero insight into what makes the bell so compelling (though I wasn’t born in this country). Sometimes I think that the Liberty Bell is like Zsa Zsa Gabor or one of these old celebrities who are famous for being famous: You think you know they did something many years ago, but you’re not quite sure what it was, and you wonder why people are still paying attention to them.
Things don’t get any easier once you start delving into the bell’s awkward past. For one thing, the bell has had more than one name. For most of the first 90 years of its life it was known as the State House Bell (because it sat atop the Pennsylvania State House, which also changed its name—to Independence Hall). Only in the 1840s did it become widely known as the Liberty Bell. It has had many associations over its 260 years. For example, most people are bemused to learn that the bell was originally representative, if anything, of English liberties in the loyal colony of Pennsylvania. The original bell came from a bell foundry in the mother country (Whitechapel, England). It was ordered in 1752, years before the Revolution, supposedly (though we’re not certain about this) to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges—that, and because the new Pennsylvania State House needed a bell for its steeple. That English bell had to be recast—twice—to make what became the Liberty Bell, and this also causes confusion, so I’ll come back to it another time. Anyway, when the idea of English liberty in North America started to sound like a bit like a contradiction in terms to the colonists, the bell-that-later-became-the-Liberty Bell shifted its allegiance to an association with American liberty, and then independence. It rang for a Stamp Act protest meeting in October 1765; it might have rung to protest the Intolerable Acts in 1774; it might have rung for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776; but it definitely rang for the Declaration’s first birthday, July 4, 1777.
So the bell was a big deal during the Revolutionary era, right? Well no, not quite. It was later made into a big deal by 19th century storytellers ginning up its significance back in the day (see below); but in 1776, it just happened to be a bell sitting on top of the building where the Declaration of Independence was approved and signed. But there’s another part to the Liberty Bell story that has nothing to do with the War of Independence. To appreciate this we have to consider the role of the abolitionist movement—the folks who actually helped to give the bell its name. Early in 1835 a group of abolitionists from the American Anti-Slavery Society in New York had gone up Independence Hall tower, seen the bell, read the inscription, and thought hard about the bell’s associations with the Revolutionary era. They decided to publish a piece in their journal, The Anti-Slavery Record, focusing on the bell’s inscription and how the country had not lived up to its promise of freedom for all when one-sixth of its inhabitants languished in slavery. (Remember, this is 30 years before the 13th Amendment that abolished the vile practice at the end of the Civil War.) Well, that got the ball rolling. Two years later, another abolitionist journal placed an illustration of a stylized but recognizable State House Bell on its cover. Word spread about the bell. In 1839, the poem “Liberty Bell” was published in Boston by William Lloyd Garrison in his The Liberator. Word spread even more, and as the abolition movement gathered steam the “State House Bell” began to be called the “Liberty Bell.”
Although the bell was familiar to Philadelphians and getting attention from the abolitionists, the thing that made the bell nationally famous was a short story by George Lippard that ran in the January 1847 edition of the Saturday Courier. It told the tale of an aged bell-ringer at Independence Hall who, on the night of July 4, was waiting to hear confirmation that the Declaration of Independence had been signed so he could ring the bell and let the good citizens of Philadelphia know. As the evening dragged on the old man began to despair that the gentlemen of the Continental Congress below had lost their nerve and would back out of taking such a momentous move. At last, at a particularly dramatic moment, the old man’s grandson, a tow-haired boy, came running up the steps shouting “Ring, grandfather, ring!” And independence was saved. The story was a complete fabrication, but it was widely republished—and presented as fact—in journals all over the country. Back in the mid-19th century, this form of magazine republication was how people, places, and events quickly became famous. The truth or fiction of the story didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that pretty soon, everyone knew about the Liberty Bell.
Now fused in the American mind with both independence and the end of slavery, the newly named and newly famous bell went on to represent all kinds of American causes that fused—sometimes awkwardly—different approaches to liberty and patriotism. The bell became a symbol of national reconciliation following the Civil War, a reminder to Americans North and South of what their forebears were originally fighting for. Beginning in 1885 it took tours to national exhibitions around the country, from New Orleans in 1885 to San Francisco in 1915—though the latter excursion, its last, was in effect a grand tour around the whole USA.
In the early 20th century the bell became associated with the struggle for women’s suffrage. In 1915 a replica bell was cast for the suffragists. This bell, called the Women’s Liberty Bell or Justice Bell, resembled the Liberty Bell except in three ways: It didn’t have a crack in it, it added the words “establish justice,” and its clapper was chained in place, representing the chaining of women’s freedom. It was said that this bell would not be rung until women had secured the right to vote. Thankfully, it was rung in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment, granting the vote to women. (This women’s rights liberty bell now hangs in the Washington Memorial Chapel at Valley Forge.)
The 20th century saw the bell being used as an ideological weapon of propaganda. It was used in both world wars to sell Liberty Bonds. In the post-WW II era it was pressed into service to help the USA take on the Soviet Union in the Cold War battle with communism. The bell was used to represent U.S. values of liberty, freedom from oppression, and American superiority over Soviet system. As part of this drive the federal government in 1950 cast replica liberty bells for each state, and overseas. The bell went on to become associated with freedom movements around the world, most notably in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe.
So this is all well and good, and for the bell it makes for a great resume. But it still doesn’t really explain how this relic came to be regarded as a first-order symbol of the United States, in the same league as the flag, the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and Independence Hall itself. After all, most of these other symbols are big—their size helps them stand out. The Liberty Bell has a longer pedigree than the Stars and stripes, but then again there are plenty of other artifacts in existence today that were around at the birth of independence. How did a cracked and useless bell get into the First Division of Americana? I’ll have to return to that big question in another post.
David Kimball (2006). The Story of the Liberty Bell. Washington, DC: Eastern National (National Park Service).
Gary B. Nash (2010). The Liberty Bell. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.