The Liberty Bell

by Gary Nash, Yale

How did a pair of enterprising 19th-century journalists turn the forgotten “old bell” into a national celebrity? Why have political movements of all stripes (abolitionism, suffrage, McCarthyism) regularly invoked this icon over the last 200 years? A concise new book sketches the Liberty Bell’s role as a key accomplice in the making of American founding myths while becoming, in the words of one early 20th-century official, “the greatest educator of patriotism we have.” The first version of what would become the Liberty Bell arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, commissioned from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London to hang in the Pennsylvania State House. It was graced with a passage from Leviticus— “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof ”—but that wasn’t enough to spare it from cracking at the first stroke of the clapper. (This is not when the Liberty Bell received its famous scar. After cracking, it was melted down and recast twice. The final version most likely cracked in 1843 as it tolled for George Washington’s birthday.)

Gary Nash explains that the Liberty Bell might have remained a minor totem but for the purple prose of Philadelphia newspaperman George Lippard, who in 1847 turned it into a legend via his widely circulated Saturday Courier. On July 4, 1776, Lippard claimed, a “blue-eyed” “flaxen hair[ed]” young boy ran into the dusty street outside the Pennsylvania State House and yelled up to the illiterate old bellman, “Ring!” to announce the signing of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, both characters were made up, and the bell did not sound until the first public reading of the Declaration on July 8. But that’s just history. Lippard’s story was passed on to generations of schoolchildren. By the early 20th century, Nash writes, “there was hardly a sensate person in America who did not know about the Liberty Bell.”

During a whistle-stop trip to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the bell was seen by 20 million Americans—one-third of the country’s population. In 1915 the first sound heard on the first transcontinental telephone call from Philadelphia to San Francisco was the dull pealing of the bell. On Armistice Day in 1918, 70,000 people lined up at Independence Hall to kiss it.

By the time Nash is done, the Liberty Bell feels a little like one of those mascots that people bring with them on around-the-world trips and photograph in front of famous places. Its former ubiquity also comes to feel slightly quaint. With no disrespect, perhaps it’s time to ask: Does the fact that we don’t need the Liberty Bell to be omnipresent any more mean that, as a country, we’re growing up?

 

Originally published in the December 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here