Did the Liberty Bell ring at the signing of the Declaration of Independence?
No one knows for sure. There are no first-person accounts from 1776 which mention bells having been rung on July 2 when the Second Continental Congress voted to separate from Great Britain, or on July 4 when Congress officially adopted the Declaration of Independence. Although the bells of the city were rung on July 8—the day of the first public reading of the Declaration — there is doubt that the Liberty Bell, hanging in the wooden steeple of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), was among those rung.
[Millar’s Conjectural elevation of 1753 tower and steeple.]
On July 4, Jefferson’s wording of the Declaration was debated and amended by the Second Continental Congress, and finally approved. Congress President John Hancock and Secretary Charles Thomson were the only ones to endorse the approved text on that day. It was not until August 2 that any of the delegates affixed their signatures to the formal copy of the Declaration of Independence; and it was not until January 1777 that the last delegate signed this parchment. There is no contemporary account of the Liberty Bell having been rung at these signings.
The legend that the Liberty Bell rang at the signing of the Declaration seems to have begun in 1847 as a short story by Philadelphia novelist George Lippard (Read The Fourth of July, 1776), and was reinforced in 1851 by Henry C. Watson in a collection of imaginative tales of Revolutionary War veterans (Read The Old Bell of Independence). Lippard’s fictional tale of an old bell-ringer and a young boy was presented as fact by popular historian Benson J. Lossing in 1852 (Read exerpt from Pictorial Field-Book of the Revolution), by Washington biographer Joel Tyler Headley in 1854 (Read exerpt from Life of George Washington), and by numerous later authors.
[Graham’s Magazine cover; Rosewater, p. 122]
Interestingly, the first 3 authors call the bell by different names: Lippard—"State House Bell" (1847), Watson—"Bell of Independence" (1851), Lossing—"Liberty Bell" (1852). The use of the name "Liberty Bell" does not seem to have become universal until after the Centennial in 1876.
The text of the Declaration of Independence was published in a Philadelphia newspaper on July 6, 1776. The Declaration had its first public reading on July 8 at noon in the State House Yard. According to John Adams, writing the following day: "The bells rang all day and almost all night. Even the chimes [of Christ Church] chimed away."
[Rothermel’s First Reading of the Declaration]
The likelihood of the Liberty Bell’s having been one of the bells rung on July 8, 1776 may not be great. The Liberty Bell and its frame had been installed in a louvered chamber of the wooden steeple in 1753, and that steeple stood atop the 4-story brick tower. As early as 1773, the ringing of the Liberty Bell was being avoided because the 20-year-old steeple was so rotted that there was fear it would topple. A second bell, mounted in a small belfry on the roof of the State House itself, was installed to toll the hours. This second bell may have rung on July 8, 1776. (The small belfry is visible in one of Birch’s Views in 1799.)
[Birch’s Views, #22]
The Liberty Bell was lowered into the brick section of the tower in 1781 when the rotted steeple was removed. A new wooden steeple was built in 1828, with a new clock-bell by J. Wilbank. The Liberty Bell remained out of sight in the brick section of the tower for 71 years, until it was put on public display within Independence Hall in 1852.