‘A Sliver of American History’


It's accepted as a truism that the majority of Philadelphians take the wealth of historical artifacts that surround them — the most significant dating from the period of this country's struggle for independence — pretty much for granted. I say this with some certainty since I count myself as typical of those who've spent most of their lives in and around Philly. For example, I always stop for a second to admire Independence Hall's trim classical lines (when I'm in the area, that is), and enjoy it especially in the fall when the setting sun makes the park-like area in the back of that grand structure glow with a golden light. But I can't tell you when the last time was that I went inside and had a look at what's on display there — to say nothing of a mass of other famous locales nearby.

I was reminded of how cavalier an attitude I've adopted toward what we all dwell with on a daily basis after reading — in anticipation of July 4 — a new book titled The Liberty Bell. The author is Gary N. Nash and his skillful little volume is yet another in an obviously ongoing series of titles published by Yale University Press that attempts to re-examine some of America's most cherished icons. Nash, a professor of history and director of the National Center for History at UCLA, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution.

As he says, quite unequivocally, of the Liberty Bell in his introduction: "It is America's most famous relic, a nearly sacred totem. Several million people each year make a pilgrimage to see it, often dabbing their eyes as they gaze at it intently."

Nash also says that throughout the world the bell is looked at as "a universal symbol of freedom," and as icons go, it's right up there with the Rosetta Stone and the Holy Grail.

And yet he's quick to point out that it might never have achieved that status, that it might have, in fact, all gone awry, since the bell nearly wound up on "the scrap heap," quite literally. It cracked, of course, and lost its power to ring. It's acceptance as "a priceless national treasure," he insists, was a gradual process.

But once the bell "took" with the American people, it was embraced wholeheartedly.

"The Liberty Bell is a only a sliver of American history," writes the historian. "But few slivers have had such resonance. For more than a century, the Liberty Bell has captured Americans' affections and become a stand-in for the nation's vaunted values: independence, freedom, unalienable rights, and equality. It is virtually a touchstone of American identity because Americans have adopted it, along with the flag, as the symbol of justice, the rule of law, and the guardian of sovereign rights."

Nash's text is divided into five sections, which describe the bell's beginnings, the process by which it became an icon, the many trips it took from coast to coast, its fortunes in war and peace, and how it became "everyone's Liberty Bell."

The author tells us that for 70 years an "inconspicuous bell" that hung from a branch of a tree near Pennsylvania's State House here in Philadelphia was what was used to call "the legislative assembly, announce the reading of public proclamations, ring in the new year, and warn of danger." It was said that William Penn himself had brought it to the city.

But 25 years before the revolution, the city's leaders decided they wanted a bell whose peal would have some staying power — "a distance-conquering bell," one historian said of it. By that time, Philadelphia's citizenry — especially after a heavy immigration of Germans and Scots-Irish — had reached 14,000 souls, and the city was a distinct economic force, especially when it came to plying the waters in the Atlantic basin.

The driving force behind the effort to purchase a new bell was Isaac Norris II, the speaker of the Pennsylvania legislative assembly, whose father had been a close friend of William Penn. In 1749, according to Nash, the younger Norris "had supervised the raising of an eye-catching tower on the south side of the State House to replace a modest bell cupola. This was part of the plan to allow Philadelphia, the capital to a thriving colony, to present itself to the world with architectural distinction."

The next move came in 1751 when Norris contacted Robert Charles, Pennsylvania's agent in London, "to get us a good bell of about 2,000 pounds weight." There were bells in the world at the time that were larger than this proposed one, but it would be by far the largest one on the North American continent when it arrived.

And it was Norris who insisted that the bell should be inscribed with " 'well shaped large letters' around its waist that said: "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof.' " — words, of course, that were taken from Leviticus, 25:10. As Nash points out, these were important words, which would "take on new layers of significance in different eras, in different contexts, and in all parts of the world."

But at the time the request was made, little did the bell's commissioners know what lay in store for this biblical proclamation.

After Robert Charles received Norris's request, Nash reports that he took the order to one of England's oldest bell foundries located in Whitechapel that had been casting bells in London since 1570. The bell was cast, then safely packed for its transatlantic voyage. It arrived in Philadelphia in 1752, and Nash writes that workmen brought it ashore and mounted it on a stand to test its peal.

"The bell struck a loud bong, reverberated, and, to the horror of the crowd. cracked at the brim. 'Our bell was generally liked & approved of,' wrote Isaac Norris to his English correspondent, 'but … I had the mortification to hear that it was cracked by the stroke of the clapper without any other violence as it was hung up to try the sound.' "

Damaged in Transit?
Perhaps, suggests Nash, the bell's structure was weakened by the 11-week and very rough crossing it had just withstood; or perhaps it had been packaged incorrectly. It was not cracked, however, "as later patriots would have it, because, 'the tones learned in Britain could not be repeated in the land prepared for Democracy.' "

Deeply disturbed by what had occurred, Norris sent a letter to Whitechapel saying the metal must have been too brittle. Whitechapel Foundry, which still functions today — into its fourth century, in fact — insisted that the bell must have been damaged in transit or might have been the victim of an inexperienced bell ringer, "who incorrectly sent the clapper careening against the bell's brim." (Up until as late as 1972, the foundry was insisting that the Pennsylvania State House bell was the only one in four centuries of manufacturing that had cracked in testing.)

The bell's cost was 120 pounds — that's $8,000 in today's purchasing power. What was to be done?

If you'd like to find out — and chronicles of this sort interest you even slightly — Nash's Liberty Bell is for you; filled with splendid portraits of Colonial personalities, as well as lots of tidbits of history, it's the perfect book to help while away a few hours, especially under a tall, spreading Chestnut tree on a lazy July 4 afternoon.  



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here