THE FOURTH OF JULY, 1776
by George Lippard (1847)
Let me paint you a picture on the canvass of the Past.
It is a cloudless summer day. Yes, a clear blue sky arches and smiles above a quaint edifice, rising among giant trees, in the center of a wide city. That edifice is built of red brick, with heavy window frames and a massy hall door. The Wide-spreading dome of St. Peterís, the snowy pillars of the Parthenon, the gloomy glory of Westminster Abbey -- none of these, nor anything like these are here, to elevate this edifice of plain red brick into a gorgeous monument of architecture.
Plain red brick the walls; the windows partly framed in stone; the roof-eaves heavy with intricate carvings; the hall door ornamented with pillars of dark stone; such is the State House of Philadelphia; in this year of our Lord, 1776.
Around the stately edifice stately trees arise. Yonder toward the dark walls of Walnut Street gaol, spreads a pleasant lawn, enclosed by a plain board fence. Above our heads, these trees lock their massy limbs and spread their leafy canopy.
There are walks here, too, not fashioned in squares and circles, but spreading in careless negligence along the lawn. Benches, too, rude benches, on which repose the forms of old men with gray hairs, and women with babies in their arms.
This is a beautiful day, and this is a pleasant lawn; but why do those clusters of citizens, with anxious faces, gather round the State House walls? There is the Merchant in his velvet garb and ruffled shirt; there the Mechanic, with apron on his breast and tools in his hands; there the bearded Sailor and the dark-robed Minister, all grouped together.
Why this anxiety on every face? This gathering in little groups all over the lawn?
Yet hold a moment! In yonder wooden steeple, which crowns the red brick State House, stands an old man with white hair and sunburnt face. He is clad in humble attire, yet his eye gleams, as it is fixed upon the ponderous outline of the Bell, suspended in the steeple there. The old man tries to read the inscription on that bell, but cannot. Out upon the waves, far away in the forests; thus has his life been passed. He is no scholar, he scarcely can spell one of those strange words carved on the surface of that bell.
By his side, gazing in his face -- that sunburnt face -- in wonder, stands a flaxen-haired boy, with laughing eyes of summer blue.
"Come here, my boy; you are a rich manís child. You can read. Spell me those words, and Iíll bless ye, my good child!"
And the child raised itself on tip-toe and pressed its tiny hands against the bell, and read, in lisping tones, these memorable words:
"Proclaim Liberty to all the Land and all the inhabitants thereof."
The old man ponders for a moment on those strange words; then gathering the boy in his arms he speaks,
"Look here, my child? Wilt do the old man a kindness? Then haste you down stairs, and wait in the hall by the big door, until a man shall give you a message for me. A man with a velvet dress and a kind face, will come out from the big door, and give you a word for me. When he gives you that word, then run out yonder in the street, and shout it up to me. Do you mind?"
It needed no second command. The boy with blue eyes and flaxen hair sprang from the old Bell-keeperís arms, and threaded his way down the dark stairs.
The old Bell-keeper was alone. Many minutes passed. Leaning over the railing of the steeple, his face toward Chestnut Street, he looked anxiously for that fair-haired boy. Moments passed, yet still he came not. The crowds gathered more darkly along the pavement and over the lawn, yet still the boy came not.
"Oh," groaned the old man, "he has forgotten me! These old limbs will have to totter down the State House stairs, and climb up again, and all on account of that child -- "
As the word was on his lips, a merry, ringing laugh broke on the ear. There, among the crowds on the pavement, stood the blue-eyed boy, clasping his tiny hands, while the breeze blowed his flaxen hair all about his face.
And then, swelling his little chest, he raised himself on tip-toe, and shouted a single word --
Do you see that old manís eye fire? Do you see that withered hand, grasping the Iron Tongue of the Bell? The old man is young again; his veins are filled with new life. Backward and forward, with sturdy strokes, he swings the Tongue. The bell speaks out! The crowd in the street hear it, and burst forth in one long shout! Old Delaware hears it, and gives it back in the hurrah of her thousand sailors. The city hears it, and starts up from desk and workbench, as though an earthquake had spoken.
Yet still while the sweat pours from his brow, that old Bell-keeper hurls the iron tongue, and still -- boom -- boom -- boom -- the Bell speaks to the city and to the world.
There is a terrible poetry in the sound of that State House Bell at dead of night, when striking its sudden and solemn -- One! -- It rouses crime from its task, mirth from its wine-cup, murder from its knife, bribery from its gold. There is a terrible poetry from that sound. It speaks to us like a voice from our youth -- like a knell of Godís judgment -- like a solemn yet kind remembrancer of friends, now dead and gone.
There is a terrible poetry in that sound at dead of night: but there was a day when the echo of that Bell awoke a world, slumbering in tyranny and crime!
Yes, as the old man swung the Iron Tongue, the Bell spoke to all the world. That sound crossed the Atlantic -- pierced the dungeons of Europe -- the work shops of England -- the vassal-fields of France.
That Echo spoke to the slave -- bade him look from his toil -- and know himself a man.
That Echo startled Kings upon their crumbling thrones.
That Echo was the knell of King-craft, Priest-craft and all the other crafts born of the darkness of ages, and baptized in seas of blood.
Yes, the voice of that little boy, who lifting himself on tip-toe, with his flaxen hair blowing in the breeze, shouted -- "Ring" -- had a deep and awful meaning in its infant tones:
Why did that word, "Ring!" -- why did that Echo of the State House Bell speak such deep and awful meaning to the world?
Under that very bell, pealing out at noonday, in an old hall, 56 traders, farmers and mechanics had assembled to shake the shackles of the world.
Now let us look in upon this band of plain men, met in such solemn council. It is now half an hour previous to the moment when the Bell ringer responded to the shout of the fair-haired boy.
... Look over the faces of these 56 men and see every eye turned to the door. There is silence in this hall -- every voice is hushed -- every face is stamped with a deep and awful responsibility. Why turns every glance to that door? . . . The Committee of Three, who have been out all night, penning a parchment are about to appear. The parchment, with signatures of these men, written with the pen lying on yonder table will either make a world free -- or stretch these necks upon the gibbet. . . . The door opens -- the Committee appear. . . . The three advance to the table. The Parchment is laid there. Shall it be signed or not?
Look! How they rush forward. . . . Look how the names blaze on the Parchment! . . . And now the Parchment is signed; and now let word . . . go out to all the earth. . . . Let the Bell speak out the great truth.
George Lippard, Legends of the American Revolution -- New Series, Legend 27th; "The Fourth of July, 1776." (Philadelphia: Saturday Courier; January 2, 1847)