243 years ago today on July 8, 1776, a 2,000 pound bell rang from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House calling citizens to rush to the steps of the building in the heart of Philadelphia. What was the important news?
The bell tolled to summon men, women and children to hear the first public reading of our Declaration of Independence.
Just days earlier on July 4th, after extraordinary debate by representatives of the 13 colonies and with extraordinary vision, a consensus had been reached and the Declaration of Independence was adopted – signed by delegates to the Continental Congress.
Of interest to many is that nine of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration were known to be Freemasons: William Ellery member of First Lodge of Boston; Benjamin Franklin, Grand Master of Pennsylvania; John Hancock member of Merchants Lodge No. 277 in Quebec before affiliating with Saint Andrew's Lodge in Boston; Joseph Hewes member of Unanimity Lodge No. 7; William Hooper member of Hanover Lodge in Masonborough, North Carolina; Robert Treat Paine attendee in 1759 to Massachusetts Grand Lodge; Richard Stockton Master of St. John's Lodge in Princeton, New Jersey; George Walton member of Solomon's Lodge No. 1, in Savannah, Georgia; and William Whipple member of St. John's Lodge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Because the Declaration of Independence was of such vital importance, the delegates of the Continental Congress chose to wait four days to announce this historic document until they could get copies of the Declaration printed. In this way, Philadelphians who arrived at the State House could not only hear the announcement but also receive a printed copy of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776, as the giant bell peeled from the State House.
The State House bell was famous in Philadelphia not only because of its size but also because the bell was used to summon citizens whenever there was “breaking news” in the city.
The bell was British made by the Whitechapel Foundry in London and had been shipped to America arriving in Philadelphia on September of 1752. The huge copper and tin bell was installed in the steeple of the State House on March 20, 1753.
While history tells us that there is a large crack in the bell, that crack did not happen during the Revolutionary War, as some might suppose. In fact, there were two small cracks in the bell which occurred when the bell was initially installed atop the State House caused by the weight of the clapper hitting the bell.
Several attempts were made to repair the cracked bell to no avail. A new bell was recast in London but upon inspection, it proved no better than the first bell so the original bell remained in the Pennsylvania State House steeple.
Over two decades, the bell had peeled to call the Assembly members to the State House but the bell also rang in celebration on special occasions or to summon residents of Philadelphia to come to hear important announcements.
Ironically, the bell had also been used to acknowledge King George lll’s accession to the throne of England in 1761. Just 15 years later, the same bell would signal the intention of Americans to defy King George and declare themselves as citizens of a new nation.
The bell would become a symbol of America as a country where citizens were given the opportunity to find life, liberty and feel free to pursue their personal dreams not by the acquiescence of kings but by the unalienable rights bestowed upon them by God.
As the Revolutionary War ensued, victory over the most powerful nation on earth, was an uncertain gamble. When British troops were on the verge of taking control of Philadelphia in 1777, the bell was removed from the State House and hidden in Allentown, Pennsylvania, to avoid having the British troops melt down the bell to create ammunition to be used against General George Washington’s Continental Army.
Following the surrender of Cornwallis in October of 1781 in Yorktown, the Revolutionary War ended. Philadelphians cheered as the bell was returned to their city and rehung again in the State House. The bell continued to be rung annually to celebrate America’s Independence Day on July 4th and, for many years, the bell rang each February 22nd, to honor the birthday of George Washington.
There is debate among historians about exactly when the bell’s famous large crack first appeared and when it expanded making the bell inoperable. Some believe the large crack occurred after the bell tolled during the funeral for John Marshall, Chief Justice of the United States in 1835. Others believe that the large crack formed on the occasion of the bell ringing on George Washington’s birthday in 1846. Whatever the date of the severe damage, the Liberty Bell could no longer ring with a clear tone but could only be tapped to create a duller thud. The Liberty Bell was removed from the tower in 1952 and was on display in many cities at expositions.
While the bell always held historical significance, it was not until 1839 that the bell was referred to as the “Liberty Bell”. Women active in the anti-slavery movement during the early 1800s published a pamphlet entitled the “Liberty Bell” which was used by Abolitionists to promote the end of slavery. The pamphlet included essays and poems written to inspire women to speak up and take action to inform the public about the evils of slavery.
At a time when women themselves did not have the vote and were excluded from having much political influence, the efforts of females to champion the end of slavery took remarkable courage. An Abolitionist poem published by William Lloyd Graham in his publication, The Liberator”, was entitled “the Liberty Bell” – making a direct reference to the “Liberty Bell” being atop Philadelphia’s State House. This is believed to be the first time the name was used in reference to the bell that is now recognized worldwide as America’s Liberty Bell.
Throughout its history, the significance of the famous Liberty Bell was so ingrained in the hearts of Americans that it continued to be “tapped” (as it could no longer ring due to the large crack) to mark important dates including on the Allies invasion of France on D-Day in 1944.
200 years after the Liberty Bell rang announcing the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the bell was placed on display in a pavilion as part of the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration.
More than a million visitors each year gaze at the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. On the bell is a Biblical quote taken from the Book of Leviticus which refers to the Hebrew tradition whereby every 50 years (the Year of Jubilee) all slaves were to be set free.
It’s inscription from the King James version of the Bible continues to inspire new generations with these words:
“Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”