The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell bears a timeless message: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof"
Go beyond the iconic crack to learn how this State House bell was transformed into an extraordinary symbol. Abolitionists, women's suffrage advocates and Civil Rights leaders took inspiration from the inscription on this bell. Plan your visit to the Liberty Bell Center to allow time to view the exhibits, see the film, and gaze upon the famous cracked bell. No tickets are required and hours vary seasonally.
Benjamin Franklin (left) by David Rent Etter after Charles Willson Peale after David Martin, 1835. NPS image
From Signal to Symbol
The State House bell, now known as the Liberty Bell, rang in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House. Today, we call that building Independence Hall. Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris first ordered a bell for the bell tower in 1751 from the Whitechapel Foundry in London. That bell cracked on the first test ring. Local metalworkers John Pass and John Stow melted down that bell and cast a new one right here in Philadelphia. It's this bell that would ring to call lawmakers to their meetings and the townspeople together to hear the reading of the news. It's not until the 1830's that the old State House bell would begin to take on significance as a symbol of liberty. Listen to the story of the Liberty Bell in this audio podcast.
No one recorded when or why the Liberty Bell first cracked, but the most likely explanation is that a narrow split developed in the early 1840's after nearly 90 years of hard use. In 1846, when the city decided to repair the bell prior to George Washington's birthday holiday (February 23), metal workers widened the thin crack to prevent its farther spread and restore the tone of the bell using a technique called "stop drilling". The wide "crack" in the Liberty Bell is actually the repair job! Look carefully and you'll see over 40 drill bit marks in that wide "crack". But, the repair was not successful. The Public Ledger newspaper reported that the repair failed when another fissure developed. This second crack, running from the abbreviation for "Philadelphia" up through the word "Liberty", silenced the bell forever. No one living today has heard the bell ring freely with its clapper, but computer modeling provides some clues into the sound of the Liberty Bell.
The Liberty Bell's inscription is from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof." This Old Testament verse refers to the "Jubilee", or the instructions to the Israelites to return property and free slaves every 50 years. Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris chose this inscription for the State House bell in 1751, possibly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges which granted religious liberties and political self-government to the people of Pennsylvania.
Courtesy, Kenneth Florey
The State House bell became a herald of liberty in the 19th century. "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof," the bell's inscription, provided a rallying cry for abolitionists wishing to end slavery. The Anti-Slavery Record, an abolitionist publication, first referred to the bell as the Liberty Bell in 1835, but that name was not widely adopted until years later. Millions of Americans became familiar with the bell in popular culture through George Lippard's 1847 fictional story "Ring, Grandfather, Ring", when the bell came to symbolize pride in a new nation. Beginning in the late 1800's, the Liberty Bell traveled across the country for display at expositions and fairs, stopping in towns small and large along the way. For a nation recovering from wounds of the Civil War, the bell served to remind Americans of a time when they fought together for independence. Movements from Women's Suffrage to Civil Rights embraced the Liberty Bell for both protest and celebration. Now a worldwide symbol, the bell's message of liberty remains just as relevant and powerful today: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof"
The two lines of text around the top of the bell include the inscription of liberty, and information about who ordered the bell (Pennsylvania Assembly) and why (to go in their State House):
Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X
The information on the face of the bell tells us who cast the bell (John Pass and John Stow), where (Philadelphia) and when (1753):
The bell weighed 2,080 lbs. at order. It is made of bronze. It's 70% copper, 25% tin and contains small amounts of lead, gold, arsenic, silver, and zinc. The bell's wooden yoke is American elm, but there is no proof that it is the original yoke for this bell. While there is evidence that the bell rang to mark the Stamp Act tax and its repeal, there is no evidence that the bell rang on July 4 or 8, 1776.
Did You Know?
Many American patriots owned slaves before, during or after the Revolution. Here are a few you might know: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, Robert Morris, and James Wilson. Many of them spoke out against slavery, but only Washington freed 124 people by his will.