on November 13, 2011
The Liberty Bell is a bell with a crack in it. Taken at face value it is one of the least impressive sights around. However it is also one of the most inspiring – its image and memory has been used as a mirror to inspire people in the United States in the search for freedom. And I think visitors to Philadelphia need to keep that in mind, because otherwise the Liberty Bell is pretty unexciting.The Liberty Bell Center is free to enter. Visitors do not have to join tours or specific time slots, which makes it a good thing to do if you are waiting for your entrance time at Independence Hall. It is a modern building on the grass opposite the Hall with information panels taking you through the history and significance of the bell. These don’t help matters if I’m honest. For starters they blow the biggest myth out of the water straight away: the bell has nothing to do with American independence. It was present in the clocktower of the Pennsylvania State House (as Independence Hall was then known), and there are references to bells ringing out to celebrate the reading of the Declaration of Independence on 8th July 1776, but there is no conclusive proof to state that this bell was one of those. Nor did it have any special significance. It was just a bell in a building where some momentous discussions took place – and not even an especially good one as its re-castings to correct defects and its famous crack testify. It was not even referred to as ‘the Liberty Bell’ until many years later. But after being treated to an exhaustive account of the minutiae of the bell’s life (who made it, the wranglings over payment, its tours around the country) you eventually come to a scrum at the end of the building. Pushing through the crowd you get to see it for yourself, with Independence Hall seen behind it through the full-length windows. And it’s just a bell. It’s not notably old, or big, or shiny, or impressive, or musical. It’s just a bell with a crack in it.The power of the bell, however, lies in the associations that have become attached to it. It has been mythologized and in these myths is a power that transcends the dull metal it is fashioned from. First there is the Biblical verse from the book of Leviticus that was stencilled on to it when it was first cast (in London ironically): "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof". They say it rang out to celebrate the declaration of independence; we have no proof but it is more than possible. Due to its central position in the city that gave birth to the United States it rang out at times of great importance or to celebrate them years later. And its image was appropriated for all those who fought for freedom. It was the abolitionists fighting for an end to slavery in America who first coined the name ‘the Liberty Bell’. When women demanded votes they used they cast a replica they called the ‘Justice Bell’. By the time the USA was fighting in Europe and the Pacific the Liberty Bell’s iconic image was everywhere. And when Dr Martin Luther King, in his ‘I have a dream’ speech, quoted the patriotic song ’My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’, his repeated demands to ‘let freedom ring’ echoed the ghostly peals of the long-silent bell. Much as the Statue of Liberty took on a meaning its erectors had never intended, so too the power of the Liberty Bell lies not in what it looks like but rather what generations of Americans have come to think of it as representing: the idea of liberty – specifically American liberty – itself. It is an icon for a people.
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