Independence Hall -- return to home page
HISTORY
Back | Index | Next Page

The Liberty Bell

The Story of a Symbol

The Liberty Bell is the most venerated symbol of patriotism in the United States; its fame as an emblem of liberty is worldwide. In the affections of the American people today it overshadows even Independence Hall, although veneration for the latter began much earlier. Its history, a combination of facts and folklore, has firmly established the Liberty Bell as the tangible image of political freedom. To understand this unique position of the bell, one must go beyond authenticated history (for the bell is rarely mentioned in early records) and study the folklore which has grown up.

The known facts about the Liberty Bell can be quickly told. Properly, the story starts on November 1, 1751, when the superintendents of the State House of the Province of Pennsylvania (now Independence Hall) ordered a "bell of about two thousand pounds weight" for use in that building. They stipulated that the bell should have cast around its crown the Old Testament quotation, "Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof."

Thomas Lester's foundry at Whitechapel, in London, cast the bell. Soon after its arrival in Philadelphia, in August 1752, the brand new bell was cracked "by a stroke of the clapper without any other violence as it was hung up to try the sound." At this juncture, those now famous "two ingenious workmen of Philadelphia, " Pass and Stow, undertook to recast the cracked bell. After at least one recorded failure to produce an instrument of pleasing tone, their efforts were successful, and, in 1753, the bell began its period of service, summoning the legislators to the Assembly and opening the courts of justice in the State House.

With the threat of British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777, the State House bell and other bells were hastily moved from the City to prevent their falling into British hands. Taken to Allentown, the bell remained hidden under the floor of the Zion Reformed Church for almost a year. In the summer of 1778, upon the withdrawal of the British, it was returned to Philadelphia.

By 1781, the State House steeple had become so dangerously weakened that it was removed and the bell lowered into the brick tower. Some 50 years later, in 1828, when the wooden steeple was rebuilt, a new and larger bell was acquired. The old bell, almost forgotten, probably remained in the tower. Years later, many stories arose about how the old bell cracked. Each cited different circumstances and a different date. We do know that in 1846, an attempt was made to restore the bell's tone by drilling the crack so as to separate the sides of the fracture. This attempt failed. The bell rang for the last time on Washington's birthday in 1846.

Now that the bell was mute, useless as a summoner or sounder of alarms, it began to assume a new and more vital role. Over the years it came to be a symbol of human liberty-a very substantial symbol of 2,080 pounds of cast metal-inscribed with the Biblical admonition to 'proclaim liberty. "

It is difficult to find the exact beginnings of this veneration for the Liberty Bell. Independence Hall, the building with which it is so intimately associated, began its evolution as a patriotic shrine about the time of Lafayette's visit in 1824, but the bell, rarely mentioned earlier, still received no notice.

Probably the first use of the bell as a symbolic device dates from 1839. In that year, some unknown person apparently noted the forgotten inscription on the bell. This was immediately seized upon by adherents of the antislavery movement who published a pamphlet, entitled The Liberty Bell. This is also the first known use of that name. Previously, the bell was called the Old State House Bell, the Bell of the Revolution, or Old Independence. That publication was followed by others which displayed the bell, greatly id@ed, as a frontispiece. Thus the bell became identified with early antislavery propaganda, invoking the inscription of a promise of freedom to "all the inhabitants. " During this time, it is interesting to note, the symbolism of the bell served a narrow field; little, if any, thought was given it as a patriotic relic.

But patriotism was the next logical step. In the first half of the 19th century the bell became the subject of legendary tales which it has not been possible to verify. These legends have been recited in prose and poetry; they have found their way into children's textbooks; and they have contributed greatly to rousing the patriotic enthusiasm of succeeding generations of Americans. Accepted by all classes of people, these legends have done more than anything else to make the bell an object of veneration.

The patriotic folklore apparently began with George Lippard, a popular novelist of Philadelphia. It was Lippard who wrote that most thrilling and irrepressible tale of the bell, the vivid story of the old bellringer waiting to ring the bell on July 4, 1776. This tale first appeared in 1847 in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier under the name, "Fourth of July, 1776," one of a collection called Legends of the Revolution.

The popularity of Lippard's legend soon brought imitations. The noted Benson J. Lossing, gathering material for his popular Field Book of the Revolution, visited Philadelphia in 1848 and recorded the story. This gave the legend historical credence in the minds of Lossing's host of readers. Taking the story presumably from Lossing, Joel Tyler Headley, another well-known historian, included it with certain variations of his own in his Life of George Washington, which was published first serially in 1854 in Graham's Magazine and then in book form.

Firmly established as history by Lossing and Headley, Lippard's story also found poetic expression. The date of the first poem on this theme has not been established, but, once written, it found its way into school readers and into collections of patriotic verse. The most widely read was probably G. S. Hillard's Franklin Fifth Reader, issued in 187 1, although the poem had been in popular use for some time before. Beginning with "There was a tumult in the city, in the quaint old Quaker town," the poem became a popular recitation piece which every schoolboy knew. The best known lines read:

Hushed the people's swelling murmur,
Whilst the boy cries joyously;
"Ring!" he's shouting, "ring, grandfather,
Ring! Oh, ring for Liberty!"
Quickly at the given signal
The old bellman lifts his hand.
Forth he sends the good news, making
Iron music through the land.

The growing legend of the Liberty Bell aroused curiosity in the relic itself, hidden from view in the tower. It was consequently brought down to the first floor of Independence Hall. In 1852, the bell was placed in the Assembly Room-the east room. Two years later the temporary platform holding the bell was replaced by a massive pedestal having 13 sides ornamented by Roman fasces, liberty caps, and festooned flags. By 1856 the bell was topped by an eagle presented by Charles Willson Peale.

The Liberty Bell remained in the Assembly Room until a more intense interest, awakened by the approaching celebration of the Centennial Anniversary, caused it to be moved to the hallway. Here, it was enclosed by a plain iron railing and hung from its old wooden yoke and frame which had been found in the tower.

Visitors in 1876 found the bell displayed in the west room, and by 1877 it was moved again, this time suspended from the ceiling of the tower room by a chain of 13 links. Probably because the inscription was difficult to read while the bell was suspended from the chain, it was lowered in 1884, placed in a large, glass-enclosed oak case, and again put in the Assembly Room. Four years later, the glass case was removed and a special wheeled foundation was built to allow the bell to be quickly removed from the building in an emergency. Displayed at this time in the tower room, visitors were allowed to touch the bell.

Prior to the First World War, the bell was again encased, until it was finally decided that the bell should remain accessible to the many who wished to touch it. The case was removed, and in 1920 a new base and truck for the bell was designed to ensure its safety.

The growing importance of the Liberty Bell as a patriotic symbol led to requests that it travel to World Fans and Expositions around the country. More people wanted to see it. The first long journey was in the winter of 1885 to New Orleans and through the South. Later trips took the bell to Chicago in 1893, to Atlanta in 1895, to Charleston, South Carolina in 1902, to Boston in 1903, and to San Francisco in 1915. On each trip the arrival of the bell was the occasion for celebrations by patriotic groups and citizens, many of whom traveled long distances to see and touch the venerated relic. During these trips, however, the crack in the bell increased, and finally its condition became so dangerous that all future long distance travel had to be prohibited.

Displayed in Independence Hall, the Bell attracted thousands of visitors daily. In the early 1970's, the National Park Service began to question whether or not the millions of visitors expected during the Bicentennial of the American Revolution would be able to even see the Liberty Bell. Placed inside the tower room, between the only staircase to the second floor lmd the main exit of the building, space was limited and the resulting crowding could also damage the original 1750's woodwork of the stairhall.

It was determined that the bell should be moved. A special pavilion was constructed in 1975 just one block from Independence Hall. In the first minute of the Bicentennial year, the Liberty Bell was placed in its new home. Constructed of glass, this building was designed not to detract from but to focus attention on the bell. Its plain, unadorned hall leads visitors to the bell and clear walls allow a view of the bell even at night. In the distance stands Independence Hall, reminding those who visit of the original home of the Liberty Bell.

From all over the world, people come to see, touch and experience the Liberty Bell. It has served to arouse the patriotic instincts of Americans, and is today surrounded by a cloak of veneration. Even more, it has come to be regarded by countless millions throughout the world as a great symbol of freedom, liberty and justice.

Back | Index | Next Page



ushistory.org
ushistory.org homepage

Interested in using a picture? Some text? click here.
To contact the webmaster, click here

Copyright ©2008 by the Independence Hall Association, electronically publishing as ushistory.org.
The IHA is a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
On the Internet since July 4, 1995.