The Liberty Bell
“Let Freedom Ring.” These words famously resound throughout the American patriotic anthem “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and again in Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, as he envisions a future devoid of racial prejudice and oppression. The image is a poetic one, assigning a physical sound to an intangible concept. Ringing implies the peal of bells, celebratory, grand, and echoing across communities. This imagery takes a literal form in one of the foundational relics of early American history: the Liberty Bell.
Currently on display in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Liberty Bell is inscribed with the words “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” taken from Leviticus 25:10. Its original purpose was more than symbolic however, as it resided in the bell tower of the Pennsylvania State House, or the more appropriately named Independence Hall. Crowning the stately Georgian Architecture, the bell rang throughout the inception of the United States of America. Founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated and signed within the walls of Independence Hall, and so the Liberty Bell gained significance as an artifact from those events.
However, while Independence Hall may have played host to American Independence from Britain, the bell’s proclamation of liberty did not apply to “All Inhabitants of the land.” A vast population of people were still enslaved. It would be nearly a century before the abolition of slavery, and while the abolition movement gained traction, the Liberty Bell held significance as a symbol of their efforts, its inscription a rallying cry.
In 1915, the suffragette movement commissioned a replica of the bell, chained and silent, which then toured as a symbol for the efforts to secure women’s right to vote. This replica bell finally rang at Independence Hall when the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.
During much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Liberty Bell toured the country, sensationalized by its now-famous crack, its historical significance, and its inspiring inscription. After one of these tours, a parade in Philadelphia celebrating its return inspired composer John Philips Sousa to compose the Liberty Bell March. He included a featured bell part, immortalizing, at least in musical tribute, the jubilant ringing of the Liberty Bell. Today the Liberty Bell is a popular tourist destination for visitors to Philadelphia. The bell holds significance, not only for its witness to the early years of American history, but also for its symbolism throughout the evolution of American freedom. Its inscription challenges and galvanizes the force of freedom to expand and include, “All Inhabitants of the Land.”