New UCLA book cracks open complex, surprising history of Liberty Bell

June 21, 2010

What we venerate as the Liberty Bell is actually a replica. After the original bell, which had been sent from London, cracked upon testing, two Philadelphia artisans melted it down and recast it in 1753, then recast it again to get better sound from it.

If Philadelphia's founding fathers had had their way, the now treasured relic would have been melted down a third time seven decades later and sold for scrap metal.

That means the symbol of American patriotism that ultimately became second in importance only to the Stars and Stripes narrowly missed the scrap heap at least once -- and possibly two more times, since it was also threatened during aborted plans in 1812 and 1816 to demolish Independence Hall, the site where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the bell's home.

These are just some of the juicy morsels served up by UCLA historian Gary B. Nash in a new book about the life and times of the bronze icon that next year turns 260 years old.

"It's pretty much a miracle that the thing still exists," said Nash, professor emeritus of history, founder of the UCLA-based National Center for History in the Schools and former president of the Organization of American Historians.

In "The Liberty Bell" (Yale University Press), Nash traces the bell's history from its pre-Revolutionary role as a convener of colonial legislators to its front-row seat in a modern-day controversy over the echoes of slavery on the grounds where the symbol of freedom now stands.

Along the way, Nash details the bell's slow and arduous rise from scrap metal fodder to international renown. He shows how the bell gained its name and much of its mystique as a symbol for a series of progressive causes, beginning with abolition and ending with self-determination for former Soviet bloc countries and former colonies in Africa.

He also illustrates the role of cross-country trips in drumming up "bellmania" -- a frenzy once so intense that Americans would lavish the icon with kisses and touch their totems and babies to it. The last whistle-stop tour concluded 95 years ago this fall, after the bell took its only trip west, a vast sweep through Washington, Oregon and California.

"It's a great story about how this ordinary bell secured a place as a way of uniting the nation and spreading the freedom message around the world," Nash said.

A specialist in early American history, Nash is the author 26 books on the American Revolution, Philadelphia and the role of race and class in the fledgling nation. He served as a member of National Park Service's Second Century Commission, a blue-ribbon panel convened in 2008 to reevaluate the agency's guiding principles. He emerged as a vocal critic of Independence National Historical Park's original plans to omit the history of slavery at the site where the Liberty Bell Center was erected in 2003. Nash is serving as a historical consultant to a team of curators, architects and museum designers creating an open-air exhibition detailing that history. The exhibit is slated to open at the INHP this October.

"The history of the Liberty Bell is so rich that it deserves to be told in all its complexity and contradictions," said Nash, who conducted most of his research for the book in the INHP archives.

The story begins in 1751, when Pennsylvania leaders commissioned an English foundry to cast a bell for the State House, the meeting place for legislators in Philadelphia, then the capital of the America colony. It's still not clear why the first crack appeared, Nash says. After melting it down, a pair of local metallurgists recast the bell, adding more copper. Instead of a melodious tone, the second bell sounded "a discouraging thud," Nash writes, so they recast it again, never realizing that their alloy adjustments and recastings would sap the bell's strength and leave it vulnerable to another cracking.

Initially, the bell's renown rested on a fabricated distinction: that it tolled on July 4, 1776, for the first reading of the Declaration of Independence. In fact, Nash writes, it took four days to typeset and print the document, so the Declaration was not published until July 8, 1776. Still, the bell's toll gathered Philadelphians, who heard a sheriff read the document on that momentous occasion, just as it tolled at other high points of the American Revolution, from Paul Revere's ride to the signing of the Treaty of Paris at the war's end.

Nash also dispels myths around the origins of the bell's signature crack. For years, it was believed to have appeared when it rang after the 1835 death of the first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, John Marshall. In fact, Nash could find no evidence for the claim. It's more likely, he believes, that a 10-year-old boy who was allowed to ring the bell during the same year was responsible for the damage. As an octogenarian, he confessed to the accident in a 1911 New York Times article, Nash found.

And it appears to be a well-meaning attempt at fixing the crack in 1846 that left the bell -- as described in a newspaper account of the day -- "forever dumb."

Whatever the origins of the crack, the bell had been pretty much forgotten in the years leading up to 1835. Only the prohibitive cost of lowering the one-ton behemoth from its four-story perch in Independence Hall, as the State House came to be known, and hauling it to a foundry kept it from being sold for scrap metal in 1828, Nash writes. The metallurgist tasked with the job determined that the effort was not worth the $400 the city wanted for the bell.

Then the abolitionist movement adopted the icon. Nash traces the first use of the phrase "Liberty Bell" to a 1835 tract published by the New York Anti-Slavery Society, which was taken by the bell's inscription from the Bible's book of Leviticus: "Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof."

Other progressive causes eventually followed suit. Suffragettes under Susan B. Anthony and advocates for child labor laws under Mother Jones also adopted the Liberty Bell as their symbol, Nash found.

"Once the bell acquired the power to move people deeply, to command their respect, awe and even love, it was natural that those who did not yet enjoy full political or civil liberty would try to make the bell ring for them as well," he writes.

But as influential as these causes were in raising the Liberty Bell's profile, it was extensive road trips that endeared the icon to the nation, Nash writes. Beginning with the New Orleans World Industrial and Cotton Exposition in 1885, the bell traveled more than 10,000 miles to fairs, exhibitions and commemorations via railroad, Nash calculates. Initially targeting communities south of the Mason-Dixon line, the trips were designed to "bind the nation's wounds and complete the process of reconciliation following the Civil War," he writes.

Eventually, promoters used the bell to draw attendance to such events as the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition in 1893, St. Louis' Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904, San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 and San Diego's Panama-California Exposition, also in 1915.

The pilgrimages ended up lengthening the bell's crack by 17 inches, necessitating the introduction of the two stabilizing plugs (technically called "spiders"), but they cemented the bell's fame.

"At towns where the train could not afford the time to stop during the night, people lit huge bonfires so that the throngs could see the Liberty Bell as it majestically rumbled through their towns," Nash writes.

While the Liberty Bell served successfully as the symbol for war bond drives, the American flag started to eclipse it during World War I and II as the chief symbol of American patriotism, Nash found. Still, the bell served prominently in radio broadcasts during World War II. "Liberty" was tapped out in Morse code on the bell using a rubber mallet and broadcast to U.S. troops at the storming of Normandy beaches, during the liberation of the Philippines and at the end of the war.

The bell also got a shot in the arm from the Cold War, when the CIA, the State Department and Radio Free Europe adopted the bell as a symbol for international democracy, Nash found.

Along the way, the one-time darling of progressive reformers was adopted by a McCarthy-era activist and other right-wing movements, Nash found. On a couple of occasions, opposing sides of the same issue even relied on the bell as the symbol of their causes.

Not that there aren't enough Liberty Bells to go around. From Berlin to Knott's Berry Farm, Nash counts more than six dozen full-sized replicas that have been cast over the years. One disappeared while touring Russia in the early 1900s; it is said to have been melted down by Bolsheviks for weapons in the 1917 revolution.

Today's controversy around the Liberty Bell Center involves the nation's first executive residence, which originally stood on the site before the nation's capital moved to Washington, D.C. in 1800. Built by a slave owner, the predecessor of today's White House was occupied first by George Washington and then by John Adams. Famously, two of Washington's slaves escaped from the house before the end of his presidency: Oney Judge, Martha Washington's personal slave, and Hercules, the household's chef. Originally, the INHP turned its back on the history, but Nash led a chorus of critics who demanded the story be told.

"The presence of slaves at the heart of one of our nation's most potent symbols of freedom is an opportunity to give us a more complete view of American history," Nash said. "The bell is a symbol of an ongoing struggle for liberty rather than one of liberty attained."
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