Liberty Bell Myths
William C. Kashatus
July 4, 1998
Each year, thousands of Americans and foreigners visit the Liberty Bell, one of America’s most cherished relics and a symbol of freedom around the world. These visitors bring a reverence for the bell – and a romantic but distorted understanding of its history.
The Liberty Bell is shrouded in more than two centuries of myth. Much of that arose between 1753, when the bell was raised to the tower of the Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall), and 1852, when it was lowered, never to be rung again. Among the most popular misconceptions:
* The bell was cast to celebrate political liberty. The bell was cast in 1752 “by order of the Pennsylvania Assembly,” its primary purpose being to serve Philadelphia as a means of communication, gathering citizens for celebration, mourning or the news of the day. It may also have marked 50 years of peace, prosperity and religious toleration as guaranteed by William Penn’s 1701 Charter of Privileges.
* The signing of the Declaration of Independence was announced by the pealing of the bell on July 4, 1776, earning it the name “Liberty Bell.” Although the bell hung in the state house tower at the time, neither historians nor the journal of the Second Continental Congress mentions it. Historians do not know exactly how or when news of the vote for independence was generally received outside the popular press. The journal of the Congress reveals that the resolution on American independence was adopted July 2 (not July 4) – the date on which the Declaration was adopted. The document was signed over several weeks, and the earliest public reading did not occur until July 8 in the state house courtyard. Although the bell summoned people to that gathering, it did not inherit its legendary name until 1839, when a Boston abolitionist group published a pamphlet – The Liberty Bell, by Friends of Freedom – that carried a picture of the bell. The reference was to the freeing of slaves, but the same name and picture were used in succeeding years for a variety of freedoms.
* The bell cracked July 8, 1835, as it tolled to mark the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. The bell was rung for Marshall, but the crack cannot be traced to any single event. Most likely, a hairline fracture occurred sometime during the early 19th century, extended gradually and grew large enough at the tolling July 8 to kill its tone.
The bell was used sparingly until 1846, when the fracture was repaired by being widened and bolted at each end to prevent the sides from vibrating together when rung. This repair, known as “stop drilling,” extended from the lip of the bell into its shoulder and is frequently mistaken by visitors for the crack itself.
The bell was then rung in honor of George Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22, 1846. Hours later, though, it hung “in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and forever dumb.”
In 1852, the bell was removed from the tower and placed in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall, where Congress had met to declare American independence. Between 1885 and 1919, the bell traveled more than 25,000 miles by railroad across the country, helping to mend whatever differences still existed between North and South after the Civil War and Reconstruction. Millions of Americans saw it, touching and kissing it wherever it stopped.
In 1976, the bell was ceremoniously removed from Independence Hall and placed inside its own small glass pavilion across the street.
While colorful and entertaining, the mythology surrounding the Liberty Bell should not be trivialized. It reminds us of our need as Americans to embrace a symbol that defines the birth of our nation as well as our values and our peculiar forms of virtue, beauty and heroism. At the same time, it reminds us of the diversity of the American experience and of our historic mission as a sanctuary for the persecuted peoples of the world.
Its symbolic freedom is not limited to one group of people or one country. It is a universal freedom that reverberates more clearly today than ever before.