Independence National Historical Park
Photos and text © Gleaves Whitney 2005
The Liberty Bell has become a symbol of freedom around the world. Its inscription, from the Old Testament book of Leviticus 25:10, declares, "Proclaim Liberty throughout All the land unto All the Inhabitants Thereof." The bell was not originally called the "Liberty Bell" -- a name that attached to it in the nineteenth century -- and was hardly distinguishable from many other colonial-era bells. In 1753 it was hung, following the custom of the day, in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House. Its ringing would have been heard throughout Philadelphia, then the largest city in British North America, to highlight important news. It tolled, for example, when King George III ascended to the throne and when Benjamin Franklin was dispatched to London to discuss colonial grievances. It also tolled to summon the Pennsylvania Assembly to meet. In the 1760s and '70s, its tolling would have called together delegates to debate the Sugar Act, Stamp Act, and other oppressive measures passed by the British Parliament.
Four days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, the Liberty Bell rang out to summon citizens to hear Colonel John Nixon give the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence (July 8, 1776).
The bell cracked sometime between 1817 and 1846; exactly when remains a mystery; some people claim that it split during the death knell for Chief Justice John Marshall, who passed away on July 6, 1835.
The National Park Service observes, "The Liberty Bell cracked long ago, but as an icon of freedom its voice has never been stilled.... Its crack is a reminder that liberty is imperfect, hopefully evolving to include those who have been denied full participation in a democratic society."
Closeup of the crack in the Liberty Bell, originally forged by Whitechapel Foundry in Britain in 1752. The Liberty Bell has a colorful history. Technically, this was not the first crack in the bell. The initial crack developed when the bell was hung in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House for the first time on March 10, 1753. Pennsylvanians were not happy with the sound, and right away two Philadelphia foundry workers, John Pass and John Stow, were given the job of melting down the flawed bell and recasting it. This they did over the next three weeks. The new bell was raised in the statehouse steeple on March 29, 1753, but people were displeased with the sound of the second bell as well. So Pass and Stow cast the bell yet again, and on June 11, 1753, the Liberty Bell that we know (the third bell) was raised into the steeple. By most accounts the sound of this third bell was not great either, but it was the bell Pennsylvanians had, so they eventually reconciled themselves to it. (An entirely different bell was ordered from a foundry in England late in 1753, but since it sounded no better than the Liberty Bell, it was used elsewhere.)
Historians argue over when the now-famous crack appeared on the Liberty Bell. What is known is that the final expansion of the crack that rendered the bell unringable occurred on George Washington's birthday in 1846.
The bell never rang again, but abolitionists and others turned it into a symbol of expanding freedom in the 1830s and 1840s -- and a powerful symbol it has remained to this day.