Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.
An International Symbol of Freedom
According to legend, the Liberty Bell was first struck on July 8, 1776, as a call to the citizens of Philadelphia to the reading of the Declaration of Independence.
Legends also tell us that the bell was rung in 1774 to announce the meeting of the First Continental Congress, as well as in 1775 after the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Although it is disputed as to whether or not the bell was rung at each and every one of these events, it is clear that the Liberty Bell started out as a simple courthouse tower bell brought to the city by William Penn, the city's founder.
The first courthouse bell was a simple bell that hung from a tree located behind the Pennsylvania State House. Through the years, the bell's importance has grown and it is now known, worldwide, as a symbol of freedom and liberty.
A Bell for the Pennsylvania State House
For centuries, church and city bells were used to warn of fires and disasters, call people to meetings, warn of invasions, celebrate special occasions, and many other reasons. They served an important purpose and were often believed to be a required part of a city, and this belief was shared by the American colonists.
On November 1, 1751, the speaker of the Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania asked superintendents Isaac Norris, Thomas Leech, and Edward Warner to locate a foundry to create a bell for the tower of the Pennsylvania State House, which was still under construction. According to U.S. History.org's "The Liberty Bell," the purpose of the bell was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's draft of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, England was chosen for the task of creating the bell. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which opened its doors in 1570, is England’s oldest manufacturing company in continuous operation since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, according to the Whitechapel Bell Foundry's website.
The superintendents could not have made a better choice for the casting of the bell. The Whitechapel Bell Foundry was the best available and is still considered the world's most famous foundry. In addition to casting the Liberty Bell, the foundry also cast Big Ben, which is the Great Bell of the clock in the Palace of Westminster in London.
The Fate of the First Tower Bell
The history of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry lists a detailed accounting of the creation of the original Liberty Bell.
The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads as follows:
Proclaim LIBERTY Throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants Thereof Lev. XXV. v X.
Read More From Owlcation
By Order of the ASSEMBLY of the Province of PENSYLVANIA for the State House in PhiladA
Pass and Stow
According to ushistory.org, the spelling of Pennsylvania did not include the second "n" until much later and the bell was cast using the state's original name.
The bell, created by Thomas Lester of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, cost 100 pounds and weighed 2080 pounds. It was loaded onto the ship Hibernia and arrived in Philadelphia in September of 1752.
According to Whitechapel Bell Foundry records, the bell arrived in perfect condition--which later became an important issue. The bell was hung between temporary scaffolding to test its sound. The clapper was swung, and the first time the bell was struck, it cracked!
John Pass and John Stow
There were no ships in port to return the damaged bell. Instead, the bell was recast by John Dock Pass and John Stow of Philadelphia.
Pass and Stow broke the bell into chunks and melted them down, but at some point during the recast, Pass and Stow added copper to the composition and this changed the tone of the bell considerably.
They recast the bell again using a correct balance of metals. In 1753, the bell was hung in the State House tower.
The Whitechapel Replacement Bell
When the first bell cracked, Philadelphians also ordered a replacement bell from the Whitechapel Bell Foundry called the “Sister Bell,” which arrived in 1753 and was installed at Independence Hall in the Pennsylvania State House. Thomas Lester was once again hired to create the second bell.
The bell was attached to the State House clock and rang the hours. It was temporarily loaned to the St. Augustine Church in Philadelphia but was seriously damaged, along with the church, during Nativist Riots in 1844.
The Sister Bell was recast by the friars of St. Augustine and was kept at the University of Philadelphia area exhibit at the Penn Mutual Building, near Independence Hall, then moved to Villanova University. It is now in the Falvey Memorial Library on Villanova's campus.
Protected from Destruction by the British
Before 1776, the bell was rung to warn of fires in the town and to announce important events, such as public meetings, and to announce the repeal of the 1764 Sugar Act. It was also rung to announce the meeting regarding the Stamp Act. These events were historically important because they led to the American Revolution.
In 1777, when British troops moved on to Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell and other important town bells were hidden to keep the British from melting them down and using them as weapons.
The Liberty Bell was protected beneath the floor of the Zion Reformed Church in nearby Allentown and later returned to the State House tower.
The Centennial Bell
By the late 1800s it was clear that the importance of the Liberty Bell had grown tremendously and Americans viewed the bell as a symbol of freedom. It was decided that the bell could be useful in unifying the country and its first task in this goal was discussed by city officials in 1876.
The wisdom in using the bell to announce the sounds of freedom was highly debated due to its physical condition. Some officials believed the bell could be repaired, while others thought the risk to the national icon was too great. Still others believed that the bell's crack was part of its national identity and the bell should remain protected and unchanged.
The final decision was creative--cast yet another bell. A replica, which was deliberately made to weigh 13,000 pounds, or 1000 pounds for each of the original states, was created and named "The Centennial Bell."
The Centennial Bell has great symbolism. It was made out of the melted metals of four canons that had all served in battle. Two canons were used in the Revolutionary War and they were recast to form two sides of the bell. Two other canons were from the American Civil War and formed the remaining two sides of the bell.
This bell rang loud and proud at the Exposition grounds on the Fourth of July in 1876. It was not at the actual exposition but attracted many visitors. It was then improved through recasting and attached to the steeple clock in Independence Hall with a chain made from 13 symbolic links. It is now encased in glass.
The Liberty Bell Tours and Protection
The Liberty Bell eventually went on tour seven times and for various reasons, primarily to remind the people of the United States of its symbol of freedom. The tours lasted from 1885 to 1915. The bell traveled by trains that made frequent stops to allow as many Americans as possible to witness its existence and importance, and as it traveled, its reputation as a symbol of freedom grew and huge crowds began at each stop.
One of its first tours was to the New Orleans World Cotton Centennial exposition in 1885 where the former Confederate President Jefferson Davis gave a speech encouraging Americans to remain united.
A second tour took place In 1893 when the bell visited the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Famed composer John Philip Sousa led his band in a rendition of "The Liberty Bell March" to commemorate the event.
More Damage to the Bell
Sadly, it was discovered that the bell had a new crack when it returned from Chicago and plans for future tours were once again greatly debated. Although the Liberty Bell had her own private guard, historians have discovered that this watchman was exposed for a thief when it was found that he'd been cutting off tiny pieces of the bell to sell to others. The bell was encased in a glass case for its own protection.
In spite of the increased damage, risk, and controversy, the bell was removed from its case in 1898 and returned to its original home in the Independence Hall tower. The qualifications of her guards from then on were carefully scrutinized and she remained in Independence Hall until 1975.
Historical Moments for the Bell
The bell has been allowed to be moved only a few more times since the extensive damage and souvenir theft were discovered.
Three times—before, during, and after the War to End All Wars, WWIII, the Liberty Bell was moved outside to encourage Americans during those dark times. The bell was also moved in 1976 and 2003.
Residents of the cities of Chicago, Illinois, and San Francisco, California petitioned for tours. The Chicago petition is believed to have over 3 million signatures. In spite of these valiant efforts to view the bell in these great cities, the bell remained in Pennsylvania.
Another interesting historical moment took place in 1940 when the first peacetime draft was enacted and Philadelphia residents who were required to serve their country took their oaths in front of the Liberty Bell.
The Liberty Bell was one of many symbols--but perhaps the most popular one--used to promote the sale of war bonds during WWII, but the actual bell was thought to be in danger and this time city officials discussed moving her to Fort Knox for her own protection. Americans around the country protested. They wanted the bell to remain on display to encourage the soldiers and their families.
The bell was lightly tapped on D-Day on June 6, 1944, to commemorate the beach landings in Normandy when France was invaded by allied forces. It was tapped again on V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Nazi Germany, and on V-J Day on August 15, 1945, to celebrate the surrender of Japan.
There are three known recordings of the Bell. Two were made in the 1940s for radio stations to play; the third is currently owned by Columbia Records.
Finally, in what may be more of a simple bit of trivia than an historical moment, the Liberty Bell's inscription was also used as a clue in the plot of the 2004 adventure thriller National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage.
Fifty-Five Bells and the Missing Bell Mystery
Throughout the years, many Liberty Bell replicas were created in honor of the original and to symbolize freedom and independence, including the Women's Liberty Bell, which was commissioned by advocates for women's suffrage in 1915.
However, after the Liberty Bell Savings Bonds drive of 1950, 55 replica bells were made, one for each of the 48 states as well as the District of Columbia and the territories. The creation of these replica bells was commissioned by the United States Department of the Treasury with the intention that they should be displayed for public admiration.
Most of the bells were hung near state capital buildings, but according to Martin Weil, writing for The Washington Post, the Washington, D.C. bell mysteriously disappeared sometime around the early 1980s.
The Missing Bell Continues to be a Mystery
The bell was originally displayed at the steps of the Wilson Building; moved to a park in front of the building; then moved once again, along with many other important city bells, during a beautification project of Pennsylvania Avenue.
The move was believed to be temporary, and the other bells were eventually returned to their rightful places, but the Liberty Bell replica disappeared.
The Washington D.C. City Council issued a public plea, stating, "Help Us Find the Liberty Bell,” which surely attracted a tremendous amount of attention! The announcement stated that the bell was last seen on April 2, 1979, and officially declared "missing" on July 30, 1981.
At the time of this writing, the 2,000-pound bell is still missing.
Why is the Liberty Bell an International Symbol of Freedom?
There are a few theories regarding the great importance of the Liberty Bell to people worldwide, but the most plausible theory comes from David Kimball's The Story of the Liberty Bell.
Kimball discusses an article, "Fourth of July, 1776," which appeared in the Saturday Review magazine on July 2, 1847. The article was written by George Lippard, a popular American author and political activist. In the story, an aging bell-ringer is said to be sitting beside the Liberty Bell, his heart filled with fear that the American Congress will not declare independence. Just as the man is about to give up all hope, a child appears instructing him to ring the bell.
An article in Wikipedia states that this particular story was reprinted so often that it was eventually believed to be true in the minds of the public. Through the years, as the bell went on tour and was displayed during moments of great importance in protecting the freedoms of Americans, the bell became a symbol of freedom to tourists and Americans alike who came to see it on display.
The symbolism of the bell has grown to such importance that it was printed on a 1926 commemorative coin marking the sesquicentennial of American independence.
In 1926, the United States Post Office issued a commemorative stamp depicting the Liberty Bell for the Sesquicentennial Exposition in Philadelphia.
The Liberty Bell also appears on the reverse of Franklin half dollars that were struck between 1948 and 1963 and the Bicentennial design of the Eisenhower dollar where is it shown superimposed against the earth's moon.
- Haeber, Jonathon. “Tiny Sensors To Monitor Liberty Bell During Move.” National Geographic News. Posted July 4, 2003. Retrieved October 12, 2009.
- "History & Culture." Liberty Bell Center. NPS.Gov. Retrieved October 10, 2009.
- Kimball, David. "The Story of the Liberty Bell." Eastern National Park Service. Washington, D.C.: 2006.
- "Liberty Bell." Wikipedia. Accessed April, 2018.
- National Treasure. Dir. Jon Turtletaub. Perfs. Nicolas Cage, Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha. Walt Disney Pictures, 2004.
- Norris, David A. “Chimes of Freedom: The Liberty Bell.” History Magazine. December/January, 2008.
- "The Liberty Bell." ushistory.org. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved October 10, 2009.
- Weil, Martin. "Missing: The District’s Liberty Bell, lost since the early 1980s." The Washington Post. Posted July 3, 2017. Accessed April, 2018.
© 2018 Darla Sue Dollman
Darla Sue Dollman (author) from Alice, Texas on April 18, 2018:
Oh my goodness, I could write a book on the history of the Liberty Bell, especially the conversations back and forth with the Whitechapel Foundary, which were hilarious at times. I love American history. It's fascinating.
Brian Lokker from Bethesda, Maryland on April 18, 2018:
Very interesting article. I've seen the Liberty Bell a couple of times at the Liberty Bell Center in Philadelphia, but I was not aware of much of this history of the bell. Thanks for the education!