Friday, June 29, 2012

The Liberty Bell: Let Freedom Ring! by Robert Hieronimus with Laura Cortney

In celebration of the upcoming Independence day holiday in the US we thought we'd share an excerpt from The United Symbolism of America: Deciphering hidden meanings in America's Most Familiar Art, Architecture, and Logos.



America is young, but its symbols are old. Of the symbols and myths we chose since European colonization, the ones that have become American icons are those representing hope, positive growth, and opportunity. Here we take a look at Chapter 5 which discusses the Liberty bell.


When people are happy, they sing and shout. They ring bells, they honk horns, and they lift up their voices to the Lord. It is understandable that a bell would become famous for doing its duty when that duty was to help the new nation celebrate its new nationhood. Unlike the other symbols in this book the Liberty Bell was not chosen or designed or deliberated upon as a symbol, but rather, it became famous because of its participation in the Revolution. Created several decades before the Revolution, the Liberty Bell was rung to announce the noteworthy passages leading up to the Revolution and then throughout the early formation of the new government that followed. It was not until long after the Revolution that the Liberty Bell received its familiar crack and, around the same time, its new nickname. When we ponder how the old State House bell in Philadelphia became “the Liberty Bell,” we realize how closely tied together are bell-ringing, celebrations, and announcements about freedom. So much so that freedom itself would soon be described as “ringing” from every mountainside in this “sweet land of liberty.”

My country, ’tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims’ pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!
—Samuel Francis Smith, 1831

As with so many of our traditional American icons, the history of the Liberty Bell is somewhat sketchy, though the colorful legends have become firmly established in our collective consciousness. We will examine how one grew into the other, and why the bell is such a perfect symbol for liberty and freedom in the American ideal. We will also look at how this particular bell was recognized and used as an energizing totem for rousing Americans’ pride, patriotism, and collective spirits. It was a natural choice as a symbol for both the abolitionist and women’s suffrage movements, and many, many other groups, causes, and products since then.

Throughout history, bells have been used to gather people for announcements, help with emergencies, celebrate public holidays, and aid in worship services. The sounds and the vibrations they make, especially as they slowly reverberate into silence, can be useful in altering the human brain waves to enter a more relaxed state of consciousness, where one can attain union with their God. We will examine the Liberty Bell on this level as well, as a functional object designed to create sound. Our fundamentalist-conspiratorialist friends have had a hard time finding reasons to criticize this American symbol, but, by employing semantic skullduggery, they found a way, as we’ll see at the end of this chapter.

The Beginnings of the Liberty Bell

Until the early 1800s, the Liberty Bell was known as the State House bell of Pennsylvania, or its first nickname, the Old Independence Bell. It was originally commissioned in 1751 to replace the bell hanging in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House, which had just been built in 1746. Today we know this building as Independence Hall. The Pennsylvania Assembly discovered that the original bell was not loud enough to be heard all over Philadelphia, and in 1750 a committee was formed to see about getting a new bell.


The Liberty Bell with Independence Hall in the background at dusk. Notice the inscription includes the names of the Americans who recast the bell the second and third time, “Pass and Stow.” © iStockphoto.com/drbueller

Pennsylvania was always ahead of its time, thanks to the determination and values of its founder, William Penn. One of the first Quakers, Penn was interested in protecting religious freedoms of all kinds in his new territory, and people from other persecuted religious sects moved there in droves. Penn’s revolutionary Charter of Privileges of 1701 is considered a precursor to the U.S. Constitution because, with it, Penn gave up his family’s rights of absolute power, and granted them to the people instead. Pennsylvanians were among the first in the country to proclaim the need for independence from Great Britain, and yet their pacifistic streaks were so strong that the delegates from Pennsylvania nearly kept the Declaration of Independence from passing in an attempt to avoid armed conflict. They were also advanced in their beliefs on slavery, and from the beginning many Pennsylvanians worked hard to abolish it in their neighboring states.

Some historians have supposed that William Penn’s Charter of Privileges for Pennsylvania that passed in 1701 was the event described in the Bible quote inscribed on the Liberty Bell. It reads: “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.” Decades after the bell was installed, someone with a flair for a colorful story looked at the complete verse from Leviticus 25:10 that surrounds the excerpt inscribed on the bell. All together it reads, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family” (King James Version). They looked back approximately 50 years from the date on the bell and discovered William Penn’s significant charter was dated 1701. They matched that up with the year that the Liberty Bell was commissioned, 1751, and decided that “hallow the fiftieth year” from the earlier part of the verse must tie the inscription to the Charter.

Doesn’t it sound great to learn that the origins of the Liberty Bell reveal something of Americans’ spunkiness for independence dating all the way back to 1701? Unfortunately, this conclusion is probably wishful thinking. The origins of the Liberty Bell are most likely nothing more than a utilitarian need for a bigger bell that could be heard all over the capital city when it was time to be summoned to a meeting. Many of the State House records still exist, and there is no indication that the bell committee formed in 1750 was marking any kind of anniversary, 50th or otherwise. All the records talk about replacing the smaller bell with the intended purpose of getting a larger sound. Also, they directed the original inscription on the bell to read 1752, not 1751. 1752 was the year they thought they would install the bell, though, as we shall see, that didn’t happen.

History and Legend

Townsfolk are generally proud of their steeple bells to begin with, but this one in Philadelphia became an object of admiration even more than most, due to the sheer fact of its location in time. The State House in Philadelphia was a center of power for the early Revolution, and the signal bell in its steeple announced events significant to all the Colonies. From 1790 to 1800 Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the entire nation, and, as the new national government took shape, the State House bell in Philadelphia rang out time after time to mark new advancements. Long before the war, the bell was ringing to mark the steps towards independence. When Ben Franklin was sent on his first negotiation trip to England in 1757, the State House bell rang. When Philadelphians were summoned to oppose the Stamp Act or the Tea Tax, or to learn of the battles of Lexington and Concord or the blockade of Boston, it was from the ringing of the State House bell.

Although the State House bell in Philadelphia was originally created to call the Pennsylvania council members to Assembly, in this eventful time it was ringing so often that in 1772 the citizens of the neighboring streets petitioned the Assembly for more peace; the frequent tolling was disrupting their lives. In 1777, as the British advanced on Philadelphia, the bell was evacuated, along with all other metal sources of potential cannon fodder for the British. It waited out the war in the basement of a church in the nearby Allentown, returning in time to be rung for the signing of the Constitution in 1787. It rang every year after that to mark the visits or the deaths of important people, the 4th of July, and the 22nd of February for Washington’s Birthday, until it cracked beyond repair in 1846.

Despite one of its more popular legends, however, the State House bell did not ring to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the 4th of July 1776. In fact, no bells or other celebration occurred to mark that date, as nothing much happened, other than this hugely important document was signed by its first two official signatories and sent to the printer. The historic voting had occurred on July 2nd, which is the day the bell ringer would have been ringing the bell in joy if the 1847 fictional romance tale by George Lippard were true. Lippard’s tale, fully disclosed as fictional, also had the bell receiving its famous crack on the 4th of July 1776, and, because his colorful story was mistakenly repeated elsewhere as fact, for a long time this legend was believed as truth.

The State House bell might have rung four days later on the 8th of July 1776, to summon Philadelphians for the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. There is no official documentation to indicate that it did not ring on the 8th of July, but recent historians have also called into question the participation of the State House bell in this equally historic moment. Philadelphians were definitely summoned by bells on July 8th to hear a reading of Thomas Jefferson’s finest, but we’re not absolutely sure that the State House bell was among the bells doing the summoning. The records of the Pennsylvania Assembly as early as 1774 indicated that the steeple housing the bell was rotting and in serious need of repair. It has not been proven, however, that the State House bell was out of commission on July 8, 1776. All of the diaries and letters written about that momentous day were similar to that of John Adams, saying, “the bells rang all day and almost all night.” No one said, “All the bells except the State House bell.”

The Crack

There are many other legends explaining the famous crack, but there’s only one unquestionably true story about a crack in what was soon to be called the Liberty Bell,. The first State House bell really did crack on the very first strike of the clapper upon its arrival in this country in 1752. The bell we know today is actually the third version of itself after having been twice melted down and recast. The bell was originally ordered from the Whitechapel Foundry in England and it took almost a year to arrive. Before it was installed in the steeple in late 1752, the head of the bell-ordering committee, Isaac Norris, hung it temporarily in the square to test its tone. He wrote that he was mortified when upon the first swing, the bell cracked.

They immediately set about making a new bell, and decided to contract two local foundry workers, John Pass and John Stow, to completely melt down the bell and recast it. Pass and Stow added more copper in an attempt to strengthen it, and this may have affected the tone. When they hung it back up to test it again, no one liked the sound it made. The townspeople complained so much, in fact, that Pass and Stow agreed to try again. A third time they melted the bell down and fiddled with the balance of the metals before recasting it. They also added their names to the inscription and the year that it was by then: 1753. Everyone agreed the tone was not greatly improved, but they hung it up in the steeple anyway.

Thanks to the World Wide Web you can listen right now to how this bell probably sounded before it cracked by clicking on the audio clip at http://www.ushistory.org/libertybell/. The Normandy Liberty Bell, cast in 2004 as an exact replica of the Pass and Stow bell, was made in honor of the 60th anniversary of the storming of Normandy in World War II.

The earliest contemporary written record referring to the trademark crack is from 1846 when it cracked beyond repair. The Philadelphia Public Ledger reported on February 26, 1846, that on Washington’s Birthday a few days earlier, “The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington.” They added that the irreparable crack was an extension of an earlier hairline crack that had been sustained at an unknown previous date:

It had been cracked before but was set in order of that day by having the edges of the fracture filed so as not to vibrate against each other... It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zig-zag direction through one of its sides which put it completely out of tune and left it a mere wreck of what it was.

Over the years, many different eyewitnesses claimed to have been present when the first hairline fracture appeared. Unfortunately, all were reported decades after the fact, and none are supported by contemporary written accounts. It is possible that one or more of the eyewitnesses are telling the truth, as the crack likely worsened with subsequent uses. For a long time it was popular to believe the Liberty Bell first cracked during the funeral of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in 1835. Earlier claims have dated it, however, to Lafayette’s return visit to Philadelphia in 1824, or the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act in 1828, or Washington’s Birthday in 1835. The only one that made the newspaper was the one that put it out of commission in February 1846. As that report mentioned, the large “crack” we are all so familiar with is actually what was drilled out in an attempt to keep the two sides of the earlier crack from reverberating against each other.

Historical Symbolism

The Liberty Bell is still rung today, or rather, it is symbolically tapped, on every 4th of July. The honor is given to children who are descendants of signers of the Declaration of Independence. By the time of its retirement, the bell was becoming linked in the public mind with the Revolution and independence. After languishing in limbo for a few years, the bell was lowered and given a place of honor.

Robert Hieronimus, Ph.D., is a historian, visual artist, and radio host. His research has been used by the White House, State Department, published in the Congressional Record, and shared with the late Egyptian President Anwar El-Sadat. He has made a lifetime study of the symbols of secret societies and other American legends, and his 2006 book, Founding Fathers, Secret Societies, was featured repeatedly on the History and National Geographic Channels and on TV shows in Germany and South Africa. His weekly program, 21st Century Radio with Dr. Bob Hieronimus, broadcasts New Paradigm topics across the United States.


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