For Whom the Bell Tolls

This week (July 8) in 1776, the now-famous Liberty Bell rang out from the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House — known today as Independence Hall — to alert the public that the first ever reading of the recently completed Declaration of Independence was about to occur.  The Continental Congress had adopted the Declaration on July 4, but it took another four days to have it printed in a form suitable to for a public reading.

The Liberty Bell originally had been commissioned in London in 1751 to mark the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania’s original constitution.  Made of copper and weighing 2,000 pounds, the bell — it would not gain its famous nickname “Liberty Bell” until 1839 when that phrase was coined in a poem — arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, but cracked when first rung, necessitating that it be melted down and recast.  When the second bell also proved defective, it was recast again and the third time proved the charm.  In 1753 it was hung from the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House where it would be rung to announce special events such as sessions of the Pennsylvania Assembly.

Over the years it also would ring to commemorate special occasions, such as — in a full-circle, wonderfully ironic order:  (1.) The ascension of King George III to the British throne in 1761;  (2.) A meeting to plan defiance to King George III’s controversial Stamp Act tax in 1765; (3.) The revolutionary battles of Lexington and Concord, fought against King George and his government in 1775; and (4.) The day, July 4, in which they first proclaimed their intentions to defy King George and go their own way as a separate sovereign nation.

Finally, closing the historic circle, after that revolution was victorious, the Liberty Bell would toll every February 22, commemorating the birthday of the man, George Washington, who led America to victory and nationhood.

Of course, what has added to the Liberty Bell’s luster is the now famous crack that it suffered in 1835, when — or so legend has it — it was rung so hard in commemoration of the death of America’s greatest Supreme Court justice, John Marshall, that it developed a slight crack.  That crack expanded to its present size in 1846 while again tolling to mark Washington’s birthday, and experts subsequently decided the Liberty Bell was no longer suitable for ringing.  However, it continued to be “tapped” to commemorate events of historic importance, such as on June 6, 1944, when the Liberty Bell’s ring was recorded and broadcast across the United States to commemorate D-Day.

Today, for its own protection, the Liberty Bell is encased in a special pavilion in front of Independence Hall.  A visit to see both the bell and the hall is a trip well spent.