The Liberty Bell is one of America’s iconic symbols of liberty. Commission of the bell was ordered by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751 to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges. The inscription is from Leviticus 25:10 in the Bible: “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” It refers to the “Jubilee” where the Israelites were told to return property and free slaves every 50 years. The next verse in Leviticus reads, “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year,” so the timing of half a century after Penn’s Charter was indeed intentional. In the 19th century, the abolitionists used the verse as well as the bell in their fight against slavery, coining the name “Liberty Bell.” It was formally called the “State House Bell.”
A Little History
The first bell had some issues. It was delivered on September 1, 1752 in Philadelphia and then hung on March 10, 1753. However, as Isaac Norris wrote, “I had the mortification to hear that it was cracked by a stroke of the clapper without any other violence [sic] as it was hung up to try the sound.”
No one knew what had caused the problem, so two foundry workers melted down the bell and recast it, hoping to make it stronger. The new version was raised on March 29, 1753; however, citizens were not happy with the sound it made. Once again, the bell was broken down and recast. On June 11, 1753, the newest bell was hung, but in November, a request for another bell was put forth. Although a new bell was built, it was agreed that it was not an improvement on the former, and so the “Pass and Stow” bell (the third version) remained.
The bell was rung for several occasions, usually to summon the people for events and announcements. But there were other times that were more momentous, such as when Benjamin Franklin was sent to England because the Colonists had problems they needed heard and in 1761 when King George III ascended to the throne. The bell tolled so much that some citizens complained of the constant noise. In 1774, it was rung for the First Continental Congress; in 1777 for the Battle of Lexington and Concord. On July 8, 1776, it is rumored to have been rung to call citizens to witness the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
In October 1777, the bell was removed and hidden in the floorboards of the Zion Reformed Church in Allentown, PA after the British occupied the city. It was understood bells (and other items) would be melted down and used for cannon.
No one knows for sure when or how the first crack appeared in the Liberty Bell, but the one to end it all in 1846 happened on President George Washington’s birthday – February 23. Although there were hairline cracks before this day, Washington’s birthday was the last time the bell ever rang. The Philadelphia Public Ledger wrote:
“The old Independence Bell rang its last clear note on Monday last in honor of the birthday of Washington and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and dumb. … 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.”
The Traveling Bell
Today, the Liberty Bell still plays an important part in American history and tradition. At 2 p.m. Eastern time on the Fourth of July, the children who are descendants from the original Declaration signers tap the bell 13 times (while bells across the U.S. ring 13 times) in honor of the patriots from the original 13 states. Since 1986, after Dr. Martin Luther King’s widow requested it, the bell is tapped in his honor.