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Image of header, "The Liberty Bell: Protecting an American Icon"
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The History of the Liberty Bell
Forging The Liberty Bell Bell Message Travels of the Bell Liberty Bell Facts

Enduring Words, Liberty Bell Message Takes on Many Meanings

Message of the bell -- Click to enlarge

Long before the Liberty Bell was known by that name, and almost a quarter century before the Declaration of Independence was signed, colonists who became part of the Pennsylvania government had already been thinking about an enduring symbol of American freedom befitting the character of the provincial residents.

Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly was among several assemblymen who led a move to have a bell hung from the newly constructed State House in Philadelphia to call the citizens of the colony together for important functions and events.

"There is a building coming out of the sweat and toil of free men," Norris wrote.

As the finely crafted materials were molded into the building's facade, Norris and two other close associates in the Assembly, Edward Warner and Thomas Leech, decided that despite the craftsmanship displayed by the carpenters and bricklayers, the bell for the cupola of the building should be purchased from England, where it was agreed the best bells were made.

On the bell itself, which was to be large enough and ring loudly enough to be heard by Philadelphians as well as residents in the surrounding countryside, Norris, a Quaker, asked that the bell carry a Bible inscription that would reflect the inspirations of freedom-loving members of the colony.

In the Book of Leviticus (25:10), Norris found the passage: "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all of the inhabitants thereof." This was a particularly apt selection because William Penn's charter, which became Pennsylvania's constitution, spoke of personal and religious freedom, Native American rights, and the rights of citizens to be part of the process of enacting laws.

There was not universal agreement on the appropriateness of the bell's message, with some wealthier colonists feeling it suggested dissatisfaction and rebellion. But for the common citizen, the message seemed very appropriate.

Neither was there universal agreement on how to spell the name of the colony, as it turns out, because also inscribed on the bell was, "By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania for the State House in Philada." This inscription remains intact.

The bell would ring many times in the years following its final hanging in what is now Independence Hall (then, the State House). For many years, the bell rang as the new American government came to be located in Philadelphia.

As decades passed, the bell became a different symbol. Abolitionists, adopting the bell's inscription, used the words as a central focus of their cause–to abolish slavery. In fact, the first reference to the "Liberty Bell" is attributed to the Anti-Slavery Record, published in 1835 for the American Anti-Slavery Society. A paragraph leading with the words "The Liberty Bell(.)" written by R. G. Williams, says the bell's inscription was considered "a sort of prophecy," and yet, "the bell has not obeyed the inscription; and its peals have been a mockery, while one-sixth of ‘all inhabitants' are in abject slavery."

The bell, which rang for American freedom from powers without, now was symbolic for freedom and justice within. That struggle, for many Americans, is still ongoing.

The Liberty Bell rang its last note (in E-flat) in 1846, almost a century after it was hung in the Pennsylvania State House. It later made many trips throughout the country, returning to Philadelphia in 1915. Even as the Bell hangs mute, its message continues to resound throughout the land.

** Photo Credit: Peter West, National Science Foundation


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