“It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be.” That is the disappointed chorus park rangers hear as visitors approach the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Visitors from around the world have seen pictures of it in history books and on postcards. They’ve seen it in the movies. They’re expecting to see a 500 ft. tall bell draped in an American flag, circled by bald eagles, Nick Cage decoding its inscription. But instead, they get a somewhat craggly hunk of discolored metal that’s not much taller than they are.
When I worked as a ranger, those remarks of disappointment were hard to hear. On the one hand, I understood. The Bell has become a larger-than-life symbol of American freedom. It was hard to understand why this somewhat unimpressive object inspired such awe. On the other, if you know the Liberty Bell’s story, it’s a 2,080 lb. guardian angel that has watched over our nation in good days and bad.
In celebration of our nation’s birthday, here are some surprising things you didn’t know about this American icon.
1. The Liberty Bell was Made before 1776
Because it has become so synonymous with American freedom, many see it as a symbol of the Revolution. In fact, the bell dates back to 1751 when it was ordered by the colonial Pennsylvania Assembly to hang in the bell tower of the Pennsylvania State House.
So why its inscription to “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land..?” The best theory is that the bell was ordered on the 50th anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges – a document that gave Pennsylvanians exceptional religious freedom and self-governance. The inscription is from Leviticus 25:10, which refers to the Biblical celebration of the 50 year jubilee. The verse was likely chosen with respect to the 50th anniversary of Penn’s charter. The fact that it “proclaimed liberty” for our soon-to-be nation was simply historical kismet.
2. Ironically, The Liberty Bell Is English
Now, there’s some controversy about this. The Bell was originally cast at the Whitechapel Foundry in London. However, upon its first ring at the Pennsylvania State House, the bell cracked. It was then melted down and re-cast by John Pass and John Stow in Philadelphia. Then Philadelphians so mocked the sound of the bell’s ring that Pass and Stow took it down, melted and re-forged it to get the bell we see today. So does that make the Liberty Bell English or American? Reasonable minds have disagreed on this for centuries.
3. The Liberty Bell Didn’t Ring on July 4th
No bells did. While we celebrate July 4th as America’s birthday, the day was not filled with revelry and public celebration in 1776. That was merely the day that the Continental Congress agreed upon the text of the Declaration of Independence. It would be several days before news of independence would be published in newspapers and read publicly.
On July 8th, the Declaration was read publicly in the square behind the Pennsylvania State House – better known to us as Independence Hall. It is well documented that all the bells in the city were rung in celebration on July 8th. We do not know for certain that the Liberty Bell rang in its tower on July 8, 1776, but it’s quite likely.
4. We don’t know when it cracked
There is much speculation but little evidence of when the Liberty Bell first cracked. We do, however, know that the last time it rang its last clear note was to commemorate George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1846. The visible crack we see today was the result of an attempted repair in the 1840s.
5. Abolitionists Gave the Liberty Bell its name
Prior to 1835, it had been called the “State House Bell.” But as a growing movement of Americans banded together to fight the evils of slavery, the bell – with its inscription to proclaim liberty to all inhabitants – became a powerful symbol for the abolitionist cause. The Anti-Slavery Record, an abolitionist publication, first referred to it as “the Liberty Bell” in 1835. It would be years before that name was widely used by all Americans.
6. It Kept Vigil over President Lincoln
When President Lincoln was assassinated, his body was brought via train to be laid to rest in Illinois. However, mourners across the country were able to bid their final farewells to the president on his final journey home. Lincoln laid in state at Independence Hall while lines of Philadelphians crowded from river to river to pay their respects. As his body lay in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall – birthplace of the Declaration and Constitution – the Liberty Bell was there, as well, to watch over the fallen president.
7. “The Devil in the White City” Probably Visited It
Erik Larson’s bestseller The Devil in the White City catalogs the crimes of killer H.H. Holmes against the backdrop of the magnificent 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Liberty Bell made a special trip to Chicago to be on display for the event; there’s at least a fair chance Holmes would have gone to see it. Coincidentally, Holmes was later executed at Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia – just a short distance from the Liberty Bell.
8. The Liberty Bell Made Jefferson Davis Teary-Eyed
After the Civil War, the bell toured the country for various special events. In 1885, it traveled to New Orleans where it was greeted by Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy. He was overwhelmed by it and saw it as a symbol of healing and shared values after a war that had almost torn the nation apart. In his remarks on the Bell, he said:
“Yon sacred organ that gave voice to the proudest declaration that a handful of men ever made when they faced the greatest military power on the globe; when a handful of men declared to all the world their inalienable right, and staked life, liberty and property in defense of their declaration. Then it was with your clear tones you sent notice to all who were willing to live or die for liberty and felt that the day was at hand when every patriot must do a patriot’s duty.
Glorious old Bell, the son of a revolutionary soldier bows in reverence to you, worn by time, but increasing in sacred memories.”
My time as a park ranger at the Liberty Bell was brief, but joyous. I got to celebrate the birth of our nation every day with people from around the world. I learned that many folks may not know what happened at Independence Hall. They may not know the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But everyone knows the Liberty Bell. It is a symbol of American values known around the world. I hope today we can all dwell for a moment on the sacred memories that dear old bell holds.