Wednesday, December 10, 2008 12/10/08-The Liberty Bell

In today's excerpt-the Liberty Bell owes its fame to the abolition movement, not to the American Revolution:

"To begin with, the Liberty Bell has little to do with 1776 or the Revolutionary War, though it and the city's other bells were evacuated to Allentown when the British captured Philadelphia. That it rang out on July 4, 1776 is a fiction created in the nineteenth century by the writer George Lippard. It was cast to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn's epochal 1701 Charter of Privileges. The bell arrived in Philadelphia a year late in 1752 and cracked upon its first ringing. It was recast again and then hung in the State House in 1753.

"The bell did ring on certain ceremonial occasions in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth-for the ascension of George III to the throne in 1761, to gather people to discuss the Sugar and Stamp Acts in 1764 and 1765. The bell tolled its last to mark George Washington's birthday in 1846, at which point the crack had widened so much that the bell became unringable.

"Even before that, however, the bell had already begun its journey from functional to symbolic. When the bell was commissioned 'By Order of the Assembly of the Province of Pensylvania (sic] for the State House in Philada,' it was cast with a quote from Leviticus, 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.' Seizing on this quote, and on the bell's location in Philadelphia, abolitionists turned the cracked bell into an icon of liberty. The bell appeared as the frontispiece to an 1837 edition of Liberty, a New York publication of the Anti-Slavery Society. In 1839, in his Boston-based paper The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison reprinted a poem about the bell entitled 'The Liberty Bell.' With that poem, the State House bell began its transformation into the Liberty Bell, a process largely completed by the time of the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. There visitors could see a thirteen thousand pound replica called the Columbian Liberty Bell, and one made entirely out of California oranges. The Liberty Bell itself was well traveled at the turn of the twentieth century, visiting big world's fairs in Atlanta, New Orleans, and St. Louis, where it was venerated by pilgrims as a sacred relic. ...

"The connection between abolition and the Liberty Bell represents probably the first major example of how Philadelphia's history has been used by various groups to establish a link between their particular concerns and the founding of the nation. It is a peculiar aspect of most American opposition movements that they see a link with the national past rather than a break from it. Abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights--all have called upon the nation to fulfill the promises made in Philadelphia about life and liberty and freedom. Philadelphia's history and its collection of historic icons have thus served since the 1830s as the stage set upon which different groups have tried to establish their historical legitimacy and to demonstrate their connections to the founding ideals."

Steven Conn, Metropolitan Philadelphia, Penn Press, Copyright 2006 University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 95-97


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