Photograph Courtesy of Stan Matsui
Of all the patriotic symbols Americans hold dear, there are none that express the American spirit quite like the Liberty Bell. So, how did a defective bell that was supposed to be scrapped become such an iconic symbol of our nation’s independence? The answer is, quite by accident.
The bell was originally custom ordered from Whitechapel Foundry by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751, possibly to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Pennsylvania’s original Constitution. The bell arrived from England on September 1, 1752, but was not rung until March 10, 1753, whereby it had been hung from temporary scaffolding and proceeded to crack the very first time it was tested. It was then given to two foundry workers, John Pass and John Stow, who melted it down and recast the bell with additional copper to make it less brittle. The recast bell, which everyone agreed had a terrible sound, was hung on March 29th in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House, our nation’s first capitol building. Known simply as the “State House bell,” it was rung on many special occasions, much to the consternation of nearby residents.
It was long thought that the bell was rung on July 8, 1776, to announce the reading of the Declaration of Independence. Many bells did ring throughout the city on that day, but historians now believe that the State House steeple, noted in 1774 to be in need of repair, was in no condition to ring the 2,081 pound bell, which probably remained silent until it was rehung in the newly rebuilt steeple in 1785. When the 75-year-old bell was replaced with a new one in 1828, the original was supposed to be disposed of, but the $400 fee to haul it away was more than the bell was worth, so the new bell replaced the clock bell and the unwanted State House bell continued to be rung on special occasions.
It is not clear when or how the recast bell received its first crack. Some say it happened in September 1824, when announcing Lafayette’s triumphant return to Philadelphia, but others believe it happened in 1835, when tolling in honor of George Washington’s birthday. Unlike the first crack, the occurrence of the final and most famous crack in the bell is not in dispute. In 1846, the seemingly tone-deaf bell rang its last clear note when it “received a sort of compound fracture” during its toll for Washington’s Birthday, perhaps for the second time. In 1852, the defective bell was carefully moved to nearby Independence Hall, where it remained for the next 150 years, until the newly built Liberty Bell Center opened across the street on October 9, 2003.
By the early 1900’s, after the bell’s actual history was interlaced with legend, its long-held association with our country’s independence had made it evermore a symbol of patriotic pride. Evergreen-Washelli’s replica of the Liberty Bell, one of just three replicas cast in the same pit as the original, was used as part of a 30-city tour around the United States to celebrate our Bi-centennial. Like the original Liberty Bell (albeit minus the crack), it stands to remind us of our country’s many freedoms.