All Americans learn about the Liberty Bell at some point during their schooling years. At least, we all hear of the Liberty Bell. To be completely honest, until I visited Philadelphia, the greater part of my knowledge of the Liberty Bell came from National Treasure (which, for the record, featured the Centennial Bell, not the Liberty Bell).
Somewhere in our educations, we learn that all things with ennobling titles such as ‘independence’ or ‘liberty’ are associated with the American Revolution. Generally, in these United States, that’s true. However, the Liberty Bell is an exception.
The Liberty Bell was cast in 1751, twenty-five years before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to commemorate the golden anniversary of the Charter of Privileges in Pennsylvania. This document functioned sort of like the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, only in the colony of Pennsylvania. William Penn, for whom the colony was named, was known for being very liberal – by 18th century standards, anyway. He favored the freedom of religion, the freedom of Native Americans, and the freedom of the people to choose and enact their own laws. By our reckoning, that’s pretty normal for a government, but in those days, everything in the colonies, including the colonists, belonged to the king. Claiming that they had rights was pretty far out there.
When it was first made, it was called the Pennsylvania State House Bell, because it hung in the Pennsylvania State House, better known today as Independence Hall (that particular title does, in fact, have its roots in the American Revolution). The more imaginative name of “Liberty” didn’t come around until well after that.
The Liberty Bell also has a connection with the American Revolution, although that’s not why it has that name: On July 8th, 1776, the Liberty Bell, which was hanging in the bell tower at the Pennsylvania State House, rang, summoning the people of Philadelphia to hear the first public reading of the newly-signed Declaration of Independence.
Its name, along with its connection to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, made the bell a symbol for the emancipation of people everywhere, even after a flaw in the metal caused a crack and its removal from the tower at Independence Hall. Abolitionists rallied around the bell, using it as a symbol to remind Americans of the Declaration that it had summoned people to hear. They were the ones who gave the bell its much more inspiring and, quite frankly, more interesting name.
After being dubbed the Liberty Bell, many other causes adopted it as their symbol. In the 1880s, while the nation was rebuilding after the Civil War, the Liberty Bell made a grand tour of the United States, symbolically proclaiming liberty wherever it went. The suffragettes also used the Liberty Bell as a symbol during their work for winning women the right to vote: A replica of the bell was made, and the clapper (or, as a friend of mine likes to call it, the ‘clinkety-doo’) inside the bell was muffled. It made a tour of the United States, making appearances at the conferences held in favor of the women’s vote, and the bell was only allowed to ring upon the ratification of the 19th Amendment (giving women the right to vote).
The Liberty Bell is now on display in a specially designed exhibit in Philadelphia, across the street from Independence Hall. The exhibit tells some of the history of the bell, focusing on the Abolition and Civil Rights Movement. Personally, I would have liked more history of the bell itself in the exhibit. The information there was good, but it focused on only one aspect of the Liberty Bell and what it means for one group of Americans, when it very clearly holds importance for all Americans. Also, I like to be able to interpret things myself, and not have them interpreted for me. Give me the facts and let me go.
That being said, the exhibit is definitely worth the visit. My recommendation: Get there early. Either that, or take some snacks for while you’re standing in the line that wraps all the way around the block. The Liberty Bell itself stands at the very end of it, with a view of its former home in Independence Hall right behind it.
Plan your visit here: https://www.nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/stories-libertybell.htm