Sometimes, stories about American cultural history aren't always what they're cracked up to be. Throughout its long life, the Liberty Bell has served as an example of just how vague our collective memories can be — starting with the bell's famous crack. Historians like to fight about it, but in short, no one knows precisely when or why the bell was damaged. And it wasn't even called the Liberty Bell until long after it was hung.
When the bell was first introduced in 1751, it was called the State House Bell, and was created for the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell nickname came much later, around 1839, when abolitionists leveraged the bell as a symbol in their fight against slavery. Throughout American history, the bell has been used in the service of many different causes. But initially, it was just ... a bell.
The Bell Is Cast
The bell was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, and it arrived in Philadelphia in September 1752 after being cast by Lester and Pack (later renamed Whitechapel Foundry) in London. It was inscribed with the words, "Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof," a biblical reference from Leviticus 25:10.
It's an enormous bell, measuring 3 feet (1 meter) high with a circumference of 12 feet (3.6 meters) at the bottom lip. Made of about 70 percent copper and 25 percent tin, it tips the scales at nearly 2,100 pounds (943 kilograms). Once installed, the bell was used to alert citizens to urgent news, to summon lawmakers to the State House for important business and as part of funeral ceremonies.
Although historians disagree on when the bell cracked, most believe that the crack happened almost immediately after the bell's initial use in 1752. Local officials jumped into action.
"A replacement bell was ordered immediately from England, but in the meantime local founders John Pass and John Stow melted down the busted original, added some metal of their own, and made a copy," emails Stephen Fried, a journalist, historian and bestselling author who teaches at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote extensively about the Liberty Bell for Smithsonian Magazine.
"That copy is what we know as the Liberty Bell, but the foundry in England also sent a replacement, and both hung in the new State House tower."
At the State House, the bell was a witness to some of America's most powerful history. It saw gatherings of the Second Continental Congress, as well as countless meetings that sparked the Revolutionary War.
In 1777, as the British army threatened the city, locals removed the bell for fear of it being captured and melted for munitions. It was hidden under the floorboards of a church in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Later, in 1785, it was raised again.
The bell really held no real importance until 1824, when Marquis de Lafayette, the last surviving general of the Revolution, went on a symbolic tour of the U.S. With that visit, America saw a resurgence in its national pride.
"The nation first started taking its history seriously, and during his tour they started calling the building 'Independence Hall' and realizing its importance, along with the importance of the bell," says Fried.
The Naming of the Liberty Bell
It wasn't until a decade later that the bell's famous nickname took hold. "[It] began being called 'Liberty Bell' in 1835, when the phrase first appeared in a pamphlet published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society — as the title of a rant about it [the bell] never pealing for African Americans," says Fried.
Some historians think that the newer bell was damaged in 1835, when it was rung to mark the death of the Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall. Others believe the damage occurred in the early 1840s, either during the Fourth of July or during the celebration of George Washington's birthday (Feb. 23). The crack might have come about from 90 years of hard use, as the National Park Service (NPS) says, or it might be due to the metallic composition of the bell (see sidebar). Or both.
In 1846, locals were again determined to ring the bell for Washington's Birthday. So, they set about making repairs. Using a method called stop drilling, they actually widened the crack, which is now 21 inches (0.5 meter) long and nearly an inch (2 centimeters) wide, so that when it was rung, the sides of the crack wouldn't touch – otherwise, they'd vibrate against each other and generate a terrible buzzing sound. But the repair wasn't successful. Another crack developed and the bell sounded no more.
But that didn't mean it disappeared quietly. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the bell went on occasional national tours. In 1915, politicians decided to hold a ceremonial ringing of the broken bell in hopes of drumming up support for World War I. (The bell was actually tapped with a mallet.) That led to the bell becoming the symbol of the immense fundraising effort for the war in the form of buying Liberty Bonds in 1917 and 1918.
They also sent it on a national railroad tour, with a newfangled lighting system that kept it illuminated each night on its journey aboard the Liberty Bell Special. Citizens flocked to see it. By some estimates, nearly a quarter of the entire country managed to set eyes on the symbol of freedom. And these Liberty Bond drives were a smashing success, raising billions of dollars in war bonds to help the Allied Powers win the war.
In 2003, the Liberty Bell Center at Independence Hall in Philadelphia was opened, which is where the bell now resides. Over the decades, there have been numerous calls to repair it and make it whole. A scientist at steel giant ArcelorMittal claimed it would be rather simple to melt the bell, balance the various metals in it, and then recast it to make it usable, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2019. But a representative for the NPS, which runs the center, said fixing the bell might be illegal and would serve no purpose. "The Liberty Bell's crack is its most recognizable feature," the representative told the Inquirer.
What does Stephen Fried think of these never-attempted repair plans?
"All of them have been ridiculous — because the bell is a more perfect symbol of our desire for a 'more perfect union' than it would ever have been unbroken," he says. "The bell is the most enduring, powerful, yet approachable symbol of our country. Even its crack is part of our patriotic metaphorical landscape."
Then Fried recalled lyrics from "Anthem," a song by the late Leonard Cohen:
"Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack in everything That's how the light gets in."
Correction: The sentence on the role of the bell in World War I has been corrected to note that the bell was not sent on tour to drum up support for war bonds. Rather, it sent on tour to drum up support for the war effort. Later, it became a symbol for the drive to raise funds for the war via the selling of bonds.
Now That's Interesting
In 1975, researchers at the Winterthur Museum set out to understand exactly why the bell cracked. Using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, they found that the bell was doomed from the outset. The high tin content resulted in a brittle composition that was prone to cracking — and that's exactly what happened.
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