The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a familiar symbol of independence, freedom, and justice in America. Originally called the State House Bell, it was commissioned in 1751 by colonial representatives. The bell has been tolled on important days from the colonial era to modern times. After enduring cracks, repairs, and an exciting hideout from the British, the bell is now on display. It is rung every Fourth of July.
In 1751, three men representing the Pennsylvania Assembly wrote a letter to their colonial agent in London. On the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, they requested a bell for Philadelphia’s State House steeple. The agent arranged for casting at London’s White-chapel foundry, and the bell was delivered in 1752.
The bell was met with much excitement. First of all, it weighed an impressive 2,080 pounds! More importantly, it was a solid, solemn symbol of what the Pennsylvania Assembly hoped to uphold. William Penn had been especially progressive with religious freedom, Native American rights, and democracy overall. The bell was inscribed with a Biblical passage to capture this spirit: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
However, early on the bell cracked! Historians disagree about the source of the fissure. In any case, the London foundry set about casting another bell. Meanwhile, two Philadelphia men (John Pass and John Stow) attempted to repair the one that had cracked. They figured that the alloy had been too brittle, so they added more copper. This healed the wound, but people disliked the bell’s new tone. (They were aiming for a pleasant E note.) The men tried again, and their second attempt was hung in the State House in 1753. When the re-ordered British bell arrived, it was placed elsewhere in the State House to sound the hours. Today, the State House is known as Independence Hall. The State House bell was rung on many famous occasions in US history. It called the Assembly together and summoned townspeople for special announcements. It tolled when Benjamin Franklin headed for England to address colonists’ grievances; it tolled for discussion of the Sugar Act in 1764 and again for the Stamp Act in 1765; and it rang again for the First Continental Congress in 1774. The bell continued to signal important events, and many events were deemed important during the Revolution. A group of citizens who lived near the bell actually petitioned for less tolling, stating that they were inconvenienced and stressed!
Suddenly, in 1777, the city’s bells were all removed. The British would soon be occupying Philadelphia, and surely they’d melt the bells for cannon fodder. The State House bell and more than a dozen others were moved to Zion’s Reformed Church in Allentown, Pennsylvania for safekeeping. They remained hidden beneath church floorboards until after the occupation in 1778. After its reemergence, the bell continued to sound for important events such as elections and the Fourth of July.
It was referred to as the Independence Bell or the Old Yankees’ Bell until 1837 when abolitionists noted its relevance to slavery and freedom. The bell’s Leviticus inscription can be interpreted as a call to end enslavement. For example, the entire passage from Leviticus 25:10 includes, “And ye shall… proclaim liberty throughout the land… and ye shall return every man unto his family.” Abolitionists adopted the bell as their symbol, and since then it’s been known as the Liberty Bell.
By 1846, the Liberty Bell had developed a thin crack that was affecting its sound. It was repaired in time for George Washington’s birthday that year, but when rung on his birthday, it cracked severely. A replica “Centennial Ball” was given to the city in 1876. The original bell is now on display in a new pavilion, the Liberty Bell Center. The Centennial replica is hung in the steeple of Independence Hall, and a third bell – the “Bicentennial Ball” granted by Queen Elizabeth — hangs in a nearby tower. The original bell is still rung, though gently, every July 4th. Young descendants of famous revolutionaries are invited to tap the bell thirteen times in celebration of the original thirteen states.