History of the Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell

A chime that changed the world occurred on July 8, 1776, when the Liberty Bell rang out from the tower of Independence Hall summoning citizens to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence by Colonel John Nixon.

The Pennsylvania Assembly ordered the Bell in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges.

Penn's charter, Pennsylvania's original Constitution, speaks of the rights and freedoms valued by people the world over. Particularly forward thinking were Penn's ideas on religious freedom, his liberal stance on Native American rights, and his inclusion of citizens in enacting laws.
As it was to commemorate the Charter's golden anniversary, the quotation "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof," from Leviticus 25:10, was particularly apt. For the line in the Bible immediately preceding "proclaim liberty" is, "And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year." What better way to pay homage to Penn and hallow the 50th year than with a bell proclaiming liberty?

Also inscribed on the Bell is the quotation, "By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State House in Philada." Note that the spelling of "Pennsylvania" was not at that time universally adopted. The choice of the quotation was made by Quaker Isaac Norris, speaker of the Assembly.

Centered on the front of the Bell are the words, "Pass and Stow / Philada / MDCCLIII." We'll get to Pass and Stow in a bit.

History of the Bell

On November 1, 1751, a letter was sent to Robert Charles, the Colonial Agent of the Province of Pennsylvania who was working in London. Signed by Isaac Norris, Thomas Leech, and Edward Warner, it represented the desires of the Assembly to purchase a bell for the State House (now Independence Hall) steeple. The bell was ordered from Whitechapel Foundry, with instructions to inscribe on it the passage from Leviticus.

The bell arrived in Philadelphia on September 1, 1752, but was not hung until March 10, 1753, on which day Isaac Norris wrote, "I had the mortification to hear that it was cracked by a stroke of the clapper without any other viollence [sic] as it was hung up to try the sound."

The cause of the break is thought to have been attributable either to flaws in its casting or, as they thought at the time, to its being too brittle.

Two Philadelphia foundry workers named John Pass and John Stow were given the cracked bell to be melted down and recast. They added an ounce and a half of copper to a pound of the old bell in an attempt to make the new bell less brittle. For their labors they charged slightly over 36 Pounds.

The new bell was raised in the belfry on March 29, 1753. "Upon trial, it seems that they have added too much copper. They were so teased with the witticisms of the town that they will very soon make a second essay," wrote Isaac Norris to London agent Robert Charles. Apparently nobody was now pleased with the tone of the bell.

Pass and Stow indeed tried again. They broke up the bell and recast it. On June 11, 1753, the New York Mercury reported, "Last Week was raised and fix'd in the Statehouse Steeple, the new great Bell, cast here by Pass and Stow, weighing 2080 lbs."

In November, Norris wrote to Robert Charles that he was still displeased with the bell and requested that Whitechapel cast a new one.

Upon the arrival of the new bell from England, it was agreed that it sounded no better than the Pass and Stow bell. So the "Liberty Bell" remained where it was in the steeple, and the new Whitechapel bell was placed in the cupola on the State House roof and attached to the clock to sound the hours.

The Liberty Bell was rung to call the Assembly together and to summon people together for special announcements and events. The Liberty Bell tolled frequently. Among the more historically important occasions, it tolled when Benjamin Franklin was sent to England to address Colonial grievances, it tolled when King George III ascended to the throne in 1761, and it tolled to call together the people of Philadelphia to discuss the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765.

In 1772 a petition was sent to the Assembly stating that the people in the vicinity of the State House were "incommoded and distressed" by the constant "ringing of the great Bell in the steeple."

But it continued tolling for the First Continental Congress in 1774, the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775 and its most resonant tolling was on July 8, 1776, when it summoned the citizenry for the reading of the Declaration of Independence produced by the Second Continental Congress.

In October 1777, the British occupied Philadelphia. Weeks earlier all bells, including the Liberty Bell, were removed from the city. It was well understood that, if left, they would likely be melted down and used for cannon. The Liberty Bell was removed from the city and hidden in the floorboards of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania, which you can still visit today.

Throughout the period from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital, uses of the Bell included calling the state legislature into session, summoning voters to hand in their ballots at the State House window, and tolling to commemorate Washington's birthday and celebrate the Fourth of July.

The Crack

There is widespread disagreement about when the first crack appeared on the Bell. However, it is agreed that the final expansion of the crack which rendered the Bell unringable was on Washington's Birthday in 1846.

The Bell as Icon

The Bell achieved an iconic status when abolitionists adopted the Bell as a symbol for the movement. It was first used in this association as a frontispiece to an 1837 edition of Liberty, published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society. In retrospect, it is a remarkably apt metaphor for a country literally cracked and freedom fissured for its black inhabitants. William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery publication The Liberator reprinted a Boston abolitionist pamphlet containing a poem about the Bell, entitled, The Liberty Bell, which represents the first documented use of the name, "Liberty Bell."

In 1847, George Lippard wrote a fictional story for The Saturday Currier which told of an elderly bellman waiting in the State House steeple for the word that Congress had declared Independence. The story continues that privately he began to doubt Congress's resolve. Suddenly the bellman's grandson, who was eavesdropping on the doors of Congress, yelled to him, "Ring, Grandfather! Ring!"

This story so captured the imagination of people throughout the land that the Liberty Bell was forever associated with the Declaration of Independence.

Starting in the 1880s, the Bell traveled to cities throughout the land "proclaiming liberty" and inspiring the cause of freedom. We have prepared a photo essay of its 1915 journey to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco.

The Liberty Bell Pavilion was opened in 1976, in preparation for the nation's bicentennial celebrations. Now, on every Fourth of July, the bell is rung (symbolically tapped), in unison with thousands of bells across the nation.

Open daily 9am-5pm with extended hours July and August. The bell is visible 24 hours a day. 215-597-8974




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