The Liberty Bell, part 3

Liberty Bell

(Photo credit: Liberty Bell closeup, courtesy Wally Gobetz, Flickr Creative Commons)

In this, my third and hopefully final post on the Liberty Bell, I’ll try to tackle the vexed question of why the bell remains such a potent symbol of American identity. Here goes.

In case you missed the last posts (here’s part 2), I was suggesting before that the bell really has meaning for many, many people, even if they’re not always quite sure why that is. If you want a quick primer on how this works, try getting up close to the bell (or a picture of the bell) and look more carefully at four things—four visual elements—you can see clearly marked on its surface: a date, the names on the bell, the crack, and the “Proclaim liberty” inscription.

First off, there is the date inscribed on the front of the bell. It’s written in Roman numerals: MDCCLIII. That translates to 1753, the year the bell was made. So it is an old bell, older than the United States—something that’s important to people. When communicating with visitors, it’s always important to establish provenance right at the outset. Many visitors, on seeing the bell for the first time, will ask, “Is that the original bell?” They have to be reassured that they haven’t come all this way just to look at some sort of fake. They need to be convinced that what they are looking at is real. So rangers insist that the year displayed on the bell is the year the bell—this bell—was made. Technically, it’s the year it was recast.

“Recast? What do you mean recast?” is the implicit or sometimes explicit question forming on visitors’ lips when they hear that word. “So if it was recast this bell’s a fake, then, right?” Nope. That gets us to the second visual element on the bell: “Pass and Stow.” These are the names of two important people in the Liberty Bell story.

Here’s what happened. The bell-that-became-the-Liberty Bell was recast from a bell that arrived from the Whitechapel Foundry in England the previous year, 1752. That bell had been purchased for the then-new Pennsylvania State House for the stately sum of 150 pounds, 13 shillings and eightpence. Unfortunately for the colonists, the bell’s arrival was a bit of a let-down. This big hunk of metal they’d paid all that money for had a serious crack in it. Just to be clear: That crack is now long gone because the bell that contained the crack is no more. That’s because the English bell got melted down to make a new bell.

Two Philadelphia foundry workers, John Pass and John Stow, were given the task of recasting the bell. Having melted down the English bell they used the metal from that bell (plus some extra copper they threw into the bronze alloy) to recast a new bell. The first recasting didn’t sound quite right so they did it again. The second casting met with the approval of the state house authorities and that bell was kept; that bell stuck around and is today’s Liberty Bell. Pass and Stow billed the Assembly 36 pounds, 4 shillings and sixpence for their work. That was all in 1753. After that the bell rang quite happily for more than 90 years before another crack developed—a crack that was to stop the bell from doing its job forever.

So let’s talk about this “crack,” the one everyone now sees on the face of the bell. The “crack” is actually more like a gap. If you look at the gap carefully you’ll see it’s about half an inch wide—way too wide to be a naturally occurring crack. This gap is man-made. It follows the line of an old crack, but it’s been deliberately drilled out. This was an attempt to repair the bell. The exact details are fuzzy, but it seems the original crack—going about 24 inches up the bell, starting from the lip—was discovered on the bell, probably in 1846. This would likely have changed tone of the bell, so an attempt was made to repair it by drilling out the sides—a process called “stop drilling.” The idea is that creating a gap between the two sides of the crack stops these sides from vibrating against each other, thus preventing the crack from spreading. That was the idea. Only it didn’t work. After the repair, when the city rung the bell in honor of George Washington’s birthday, on February 22, 1846, a whole new crack opened up, from the top of the repair (just at the letter “P” in “PHILADA”), in a zig-zag line all the way to the crown. That extra crack is still there. It’s much less prominent than the big “crack” everyone sees, but if you look closely (or ask a ranger to point it out) you can see it. It’s a hairline crack but it goes straight through between 1 ½ and 2 inches of solid metal. This time it was clear the bell couldn’t be fixed. It was never rung again (though it has been ceremonially “tapped” many times since.)

That should have been the end of that. After all, what can you do with a broken bell? And yet, it was in a sense a new beginning. Just when the bell ceased to be of practical use, that was when it started to emerge as a truly national symbol. Nobody wanted to melt this bell down and start over. And that gets us to the fourth and final element we’re looking at: the word “LIBERTY.” It’s actually a biblical quotation, from Leviticus (XXV:10): “PROCLAIM LIBERTY THROUGHOUT ALL THE LAND, AND TO ALL THE INHABITANTS THEREOF.”

By the 1850s, the bell—beginning to be known as the “Liberty Bell,” thanks to the abolitionists—was becoming more and more famous. This period saw Americans trying to reconnect with their Revolutionary past and the new nation’s struggle for liberty. The bell, with its increasingly famous “Liberty” quotation, fit the mood of the times. In 1852 the by-now-useless bell was removed from its brick tower and placed in Assembly Room in what is now Independence Hall, on a fine, 13-sided edifice adorned with the Union’s fasces on the side and Peale’s preserved Bald Eagle on the top. When people came to see the birthplace of American freedom, the bell was right there—crack and all! Now placed down at ground level, the 2,000 lb.-plus bell was too big, and maybe just too weird, to be ignored.

The bell started to gain national media attention (for example, with George Lippard’s 1847 story in the Saturday Courier, complete with a dramatic illustration). The bell also began to appear on souvenir items—plates, cups, posters, trinkets of all kinds—especially around the time of the nation’s centennial. In fact the 1876 Centennial saw an explosion of Liberty Bell-themed souvenirs, starting a trend that was eventually to see the bell displayed on coins, stamps, and all kinds of national memorabilia. The bell went on to inspire poems, a John Philip Sousa march, and an opera. Even a NASA spacecraft—the bell-shaped Mercury—was named Liberty 7, complete with a Liberty Bell-shaped crack painted on its side.

As the cracked bell’s fame spread, more and more people from all over America and overseas came to Philadelphia to see it. And then the bell started to travel to meet the American people. Beginning in 1885 with a trip to New Orleans, the bell began a series of journeys to cities across America (Chicago in 1893; Atlanta in 1895; Charleston in 1902; Boston in 1903; St. Louis in 1904; and San Francisco in 1915). Millions flocked to see this direct connection with their nation’s founding. And increasingly, at the dawn of popular mass photography, all these people wanted to have their pictures taken next to it. Though the bell stopped traveling in 1915, its status as a national icon only increased, in WWI, WWII, the Cold War, right up to the present.

But that status only resonated at a national level because of the very personal and intimate bond millions of Americans felt they had developed with the bell—a bond very much in evidence in these wonderful photographs of men, women, boys and girls, black and white, rich and poor, from the East Coast, the West Coast, the Mid-West, all next to the Bell, getting close to it. This was a huge event in all their lives. People could go right up to this icon, and feel a very personal connection with their country’s history for themselves. Multiplied by millions, across the decades, and multiplied again by the power of modern media (photography, newspapers, motion pictures, etc.) this is what gave the bell its special prominence. To put it another way: If people hadn’t been able to see the Liberty Bell up close and personal—whether it was in Independence Hall or on a rail car in Ohio or an exhibition in New Orleans—they would never have connected with it the way they did.

Most bells are seen and not heard.  But when this bell stopped being heard it started to be seen—and appreciated and even loved by thousands, then millions as a symbol of liberty.  So in a funny way we owe a lot to a crack that couldn’t be fixed, that led to a bell that could be seen up close but not heard.

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