Determining the Facts
Reading 2: The Crack in the Liberty Bell
Most people are familiar with two aspects of the Liberty Bell: it is an important symbol, and it is cracked. The existing crack adds mystery to the symbolism. How and when did the bell crack? It is difficult to determine from historical documents, although there are many traditional explanations.
The Marquis de Lafayette was only 19 years old in 1777 when he volunteered to fight in the American Revolution. In 1824 he returned to the United States on a triumphal tour around the country. His visit created a resurgence in pride and interest in the American Revolution.
On March 5, a Philadelphia newspaper, the American Daily Advertiser, published a poem about the old State House bell. There was no mention of a crack. Six months later, another newspaper ran a story about the bell and quoted its inscription. There was no mention of a crack.
Records of the Philadelphia city councils show that councils discussed the new bell, clock and steeple of the Pennsylvania State House. The new bell was cast by John Wilbank in 1828. None of these discussions indicated that the old bell was unusable.
The publications Saturday Evening Post and the Casket described the State House: "In the attic story of the basement of the steeple [the brick part of the building’s tower] is suspended the great bell." Both quote the inscription; neither mentions a crack.
The city council agreed to let the young men of the city ring "the old State House bell" on the Fourth of July.
A guidebook stated that the old State House bell was not in use, but it did not mention a crack. In the same year, a stylized rendering of the bell appeared in an antislavery publication showing the bell without a crack.
A British traveler reported: "This bell, though no longer used for general purposes, still occupied the place in which it was originally hung, and...used on special occasions such as the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence and visits of distinguished visitors...."
According to local reporters, the "old bell" tolled on April 7, upon the death of President William Henry Harrison, the first President to die in office.
The Philadelphia newspaper the Public Ledger carried a story about the bell, but did not mention a crack.
Under the heading "The Old Independence Bell," the Public Ledger reported: "This venerable relic of the Revolution rang its last clear note on Monday last [February 23]...and now hangs in the great city steeple irreparably cracked and forever dumb. It had been cracked long before, but was put in order for that day [Washington’s birthday] by having the edges of the fracture filed....It gave out clear notes and loud, and appeared to be in excellent condition until noon when it received a sort of compound fracture in a zigzag direction through one of its sides...."
The Public Ledger mentioned in passing that the bell had cracked in the autumn of 1845.
The volunteer curator of Independence Hall, Colonel Frank Etting, announced that he had discovered that the bell had cracked in 1835, while it was tolling for the funeral procession of Chief Justice John Marshall. Although widely accepted, this claim was never documented.
John Wilbank’s son claimed that the bell had cracked in 1824, while welcoming Lafayette to Philadelphia.
In his book The Reminiscences of a Very Old Man, 1808-1897, Philadelphian John Sartain claimed the bell cracked while celebrating passage by the British Parliament of the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1828.
A letter to the editor of the Public Ledger claimed that the journals of the Philadelphia city councils proved that the bell cracked welcoming Lafayette in 1824. (The journals do not contain such a statement.)
Joseph Rauch wrote to the New York Times that, as a boy, he had helped ring the bell on Washington’s birthday by pulling a rope attached to the clapper, and this was when the bell cracked.
Questions for Reading 2
1. How many years passed between the adoption of the Declaration of Independence and Lafayette's triumphal visit in 1824? What kind of reaction did his visit provoke?
2. When and how do the different sources say the Liberty Bell cracked? Do the sources seem reliable? Is there any information that might indicate a reason for selecting the dates other than historical accuracy?
3. Why does there seem to be a need to attribute the cracking to a significant event? When do the stories begin that give a significant event as the occasion when the bell cracked? Why might that be?
4. Is there something about the title of John Sartain's book that might alert a researcher to read with caution?
5. Can you draw any conclusions about the crack from these sources?
Compiled from David A. Kimball, Venerable Relic: The Story of the Liberty Bell (Philadelphia: Eastern National Park Association, 1989); John C. Paige with David A. Kimball, "The Liberty Bell: A Special History Study," National Park Service, Denver, unpublished manuscript, 1986; and files at Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia.