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Coronet, July 1946

How the Liberty Bell Came to America

For more than eighty years, it rang full and
brave to summon free men to the defense of a nation


IT WAS NO ACCIDENT that old Isaac Norris, Speaker of the Assembly in Philadelphia, chose the quotation he did. The Assembly had appropriated money for the State House. Often, when this dignified and elective body adjourned, the members would stroll over to that half-finished building which later came to be called Independence Hall, and stand there watching the carpenters and the bricklayers. Old Isaac would say:
"There is a building coming out of the sweat and toil of free men."
The wood – oak and chestnut – came from up the Delaware; even most of the bricks were home-kilned now in New Jersey. The old man did not think it impossible that a time would come, in the not too-distant future, when every stick, stone and iron nail for a house like this would be produced on American soil, by American hands.
The architectural plans for this building – the fine chamber, clean hallway, and lofty portico – were native. At a meeting of the Carpenters' guild, which Norris had attended, leather-aproned workingmen had pledged: "... a grain so fine, so splendid, so smooth as a woman's cheek, for a house wherein a body of liberty will sit ..."
For that reason old Isaac Norris felt uneasy that the bell, which was to hang in the tall tower, would be imported from England. He was no lover of the ways of England. But it was pointed out to him – and rightly – that the British made good bells. Edward Warner and Thomas Leech, who were on the bell committee with him, stressed it was not so important where the bell was made as how it was made – not only for a good tone but to send a message that people would cock their ears to hear.
"Give it a brave verse around the side, and the bell will talk clear."
The committee decided the bell would have to be of such size that its voice could be heard not only in city but in all the countryside thereabouts – which was not so difficult, if you consider that in 1751 Philadelphia was only a village of a few thousand souls. Still, the specifications called for a good deal of bell: a cloth yard from lip to crown, and a full 12 feet around the circumference.
"It should give out a clap like thunder," the committee wrote.
But to old Isaac Norris was left the job of finding a verse to make the voice clear and certain. Norris was a scholar, easy in Latin and French as well as English, and it might be that he delved through many scholarly tomes before he took up the Bible. He turned to Leviticus, as any one of his countrymen would have, for in those days they were a freedom-loving, stiff-necked people, and they put more stock in the Book than in the law of the British Empire. From Leviticus, old Isaac Norris chose:
"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof."
It was a motto that met with the approval of plain people, although there were those who lived in fine houses who shook their heads and said it was a little strong, smacking of rebellion and dissatisfaction. But even then, when the bell was just an idea in the heads of the committee of three, people came to speak of it as a "liberty bell."

AFTER SEVERAL meetings the committee brought their plans back to the Assembly, and although a few of that august body swallowed over the motto, Leviticus was so irreproachable that 100 pounds in money was appropriated. The committee, however, drove a hard bargain, and the final cost was only 60 pounds, 14 shillings, 5 pence.
Finally, the tower was completed, the rocker rigged, and from day to day the people of Philadelphia awaited the arrival of the bell. By this time it was not just a bell, but the bell – the Liberty Bell. And then it arrived, was hoisted up to the tower amid great rejoicing, and fixed in place. And then, with the first clap of the knocker, it split wide open and went dead.
Without doubt there were some who had expected this. They said: "What else could you expect from a liberty bell wrought and cast and shipped by virtue of the British Empire?" Back down it came, to stand in front of the new State House, a lumpy and toneless hunk of metal.
This time, the committee listened to Isaac Norris. Instead of shipping the bell back to England, they handed it over to Charles Stow and John Pass, two solid Philadelphia Yankees who were in the iron-molding business.
Pass and Stow constructed a mold, melted down the metal, added some native copper to make it less brittle, and recast it. Back it went up to the tower.
More celebration, with rum, beer, and a mighty punch – and finally the bell was sounded. This time, a noise came out that was never heard before from a bell – a noise so wretched that Stow and Pass hung their heads in shame.
It was cast a third time, and when it was hauled into place for the third time there was no celebration. Very soberly and very anxiously the citizens listened. At last it had the right kind of sound, a deep, vibrant, challenging ring which needed only a little imagination for transformation into the words:
"Proclaim liberty throughout all the land and unto all the inhabitants thereof."
The rest you know. On every occasion when liberty was threatened, it rang full and manfully. It sounded out for the Declaration of Independence. It summoned militia to the defense of the city during the Revolution. It tolled for the burning of the Capitol in the War of 1812. It rang vibrantly when the news came of Jackson's victory at New Orleans. It ominously announced the defeat of the infamous Hartford Plot.
Good news and bad – until, muffled, it began to toll the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. Then, suddenly, after more than eighty years of service, it split and the sound stopped.
They took it down and put it where all can see it and touch it. It still stands there, and if you put your hands to it and try, perhaps you'll hear the old tones of liberty.