• Exploring American History

Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land

Originally housed in the bell tower of the Pennsylvania State House (affectionately known as Independence Hall), the Liberty Bell was commissioned in 1752 from Lester and Pack, a London firm now known as Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Isaac Norris, who was at that time the speaker of the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly, spoke to the London agent and requested a “good bell of about two thousand pound weight” The price paid for the bell was £150 13s 8d – somewhere in the neighborhood of $42,150 in today’s currency.

The bell arrived in August 1752. The lettering on it contained a portion of the text from Leviticus 25:10 – Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. At the time of the bell’s arrival, the tower in which it would be housed was still under construction, so the bell was mounted on a stand for its test-sounding. The clapper’s first strike cracked the rim. The cracking led President Benjamin Harrison in 1893 to make the comment, “This old bell was made in England, but it had to be re-cast in America before it was attuned to proclaim the right of self-government and the equal rights of men.” When the authorities in Philadelphia attempted to return the bell to England, the captain of the ship which brought it to the colonies was unable to take it back. Local workmen John Stow and John Pass recast the bell and inscribed their names on it.

Used to summon lawmakers to legislative sessions, the bell would also notify the local citizenry regarding proclamations and public meetings. When the Declaration of Independence was publicly read on July 8, 1776, bells were rung throughout the city of Philadelphia. Historians are of the opinion the Liberty Bell was one of those rung at the time, but there is nothing to substantiate the fact.

The bell became rather insignificant for a time after the Revolutionary War. In the 1830s, it was resurrected by the abolitionists who gave it the name ‘Liberty Bell’. It was during this time the distinctive crack now seen in it occurred; supposedly when it was rung to announce the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.

The Liberty Bell’s fame began to grow by leaps and bounds in 1847. It was then a short story was shared claiming the bell had been rung on July 4, 1776, after the vote was taken by the delegates of the Second Continental Congress regarding independence. Historians, however, knew the story to be false due to the fact no announcement was made about the signing on that date.

In 1885, the City of Philadelphia allowed the bell to be displayed at various patriotic gatherings and expositions. Huge crowds were in attendance anywhere the bell was displayed. The last journey occurred in 1915, after which the city refused further showings due to the fact the crack had enlarged and souvenir hounds were chipping away at it in an effort to obtain commemorative morsels.

Arguments persist regarding the reason for the difficulties with the Liberty Bell. Whitechapel Foundry, the bell’s original craftsman, had two possible explanations - either the bell was damaged in transit or an inexperienced bell ringer was responsible for it being broken, possibly due to the fact the clapper was sent flying against the rim as opposed to the body of the bell

The Winterthur Museum carried out an investigation in 1975 regarding the bell’s metal composition. It was discovered the Liberty Bell contained a goodly percentage of tin in its make-up. Similar bells created by Whitechapel during that time frame were constructed of pure copper. When the bell was recast, cheap pewter was combined with a high lead content rather than adding pure tin. This created a highly brittle alloy – resulting in the bell failing in the job it was designed to do and making it easier for souvenir hunters to claim samples from the bell’s rim.

In 1976, the Liberty Bell was moved from its home in Independence Hall to Independence Mall where it was housed in a glass pavilion. In 2003 it was moved once more to the Liberty Bell Center, within close proximity to Independence Mall.

At noon, on the Fourth of July, 1826, while the Liberty Bell was again sounding its old message to the people of Philadelphia, the soul of Thomas Jefferson passed on; and a few hours later John Adams entered into rest, with the name of his old friend upon his lips.

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