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This Day in History: The History of the Liberty Bell

On or around this day in 1752, the Liberty Bell is transported up the Delaware River toward Philadelphia. On September 1, a city official would report: “The Bell is come on shore and in good order.”

The Bell's First Note, by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

The bell had been ordered for Philadelphia’s state house. The Speaker of the Assembly had specifically requested that the bell be inscribed with a Bible verse: “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10). The verse seemed appropriate because Pennsylvania was celebrating the 50th year of its Charter of Privileges. That charter had given the people greater ability to rule themselves through their legislature.

The people were excited! Back then, a bell was an important part of town life. It could be used to toll news of anything—a fire, a celebration, or a funeral. Better yet, this bell had been cast by a master founder in England: Thomas Lester of Whitechapel Bell Foundry. You have to wonder what on earth the people thought when the bell was hung and tested for the first time. Can you believe that the bell cracked on its very first use?

Whitechapel still exists today and gives this explanation: “Good bell metal is extremely brittle . . . . If a bell is struck and not allowed to ring freely, because either the clapper or some part of the frame or fittings are in contact with the bell, then a crack can very easily develop.”

Hmm. The crack in the bell could be due to “user error”?!

Either way, the bell could not be returned, so two local founders attempted to recast it. They added more copper, believing it would make the bell less brittle. Sadly, they added too much copper and ruined the pure tone of the bell. So they tried again, this time adding more tin. Apparently, the second recasting didn’t really help, either. The tone of the bell was still flat.

Nevertheless, the bell was used for years. It hung in the steeple at the state house and tolled many major events. Perhaps most famously, it tolled on July 8, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was read publicly in Philadelphia.

In 1777, the bell was evacuated from the city and hidden under floorboards in a church basement in Allentown. The British were coming and locals feared that the bell would be captured, melted down, and used to make musket balls. The bell was returned to Philadelphia when the British finally evacuated the city in June 1778. Thus, the bell was able to toll, once again, in celebration of Cornwallis’s surrender in 1781.

The crack that you see in the bell today was not present during any of these historic events. There are many stories about how the crack first appeared. It may have begun in July 1835, as Chief Justice John Marshall’s death was being tolled. Either way, the crack seems to have become significantly worse when the bell was rung on Washington’s birthday in 1846.

Obviously, the bell couldn’t be used anymore. Instead, it traveled around the country in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Today, it is kept in the Liberty Bell Center in Independence National Historical Park.

If you haven’t yet seen the bell, it is well worth the visit.

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