What You Learned About America's Liberty Bell That May Not Be True

July 01, 2021

Today, July 8, is considered "Liberty Bell Day" on some calendars. Tradition tells us that on this day in 1776, the Liberty Bell rang out the sound of freedom from the tower of the State House (now Independence Hall) in Philadelphia. The ringing summoned citizens to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence by Colonel John Nixon.

Well, that isn't wholly true.  

{sound of brakes screeching}

It's one of the lovely stories about America's icon we may have heard or read in books. Unfortunately, this particular story is unlikely. Why?

Historians agree that the Liberty Bell was not rung on July 8, 1776. The steeple of Independence Hall was in terrible condition at the time, so it was doubtful that the Bell could have even been rung.

Bells did ring throughout the city on July 8 when renowned Colonel John Nixon, a wealthy merchant from Philadelphia, completed the public reading of the Declaration of Independence. As for the public hearing it there for the first time, the Declaration had already been printed in the July 6 edition of Benjamin Towne's Saturday Evening Post.

Another tradition tells us that the Bell rang on July 4, 1776, for America's first  Independence Day. This is also not true. It was a magazine writer in 1847 who invented this story. Neither did the Bell toll on this day to celebrate the Declaration of Independence. The historic document was actually at the printers and hadn't yet been released to the public.  

Another myth is that the bell we now know as the Liberty Bell was commissioned at the time of our country's independence. However, the Bell was part of Philadelphia well before the Revolutionary War. Today's bell wasn't even the first one commissioned. It seems as though not everyone was happy with how the original bell sounded, and it was decided that a new bell would be ordered.

The first name of our country’s icon was not the "Liberty Bell." It was initially known as the State House Bell. In the late 1830s, it acquired its current name of the “Liberty Bell” when it became a symbol of the anti-slavery movement.

More American folklore comes from how the Bell was cracked. This is a considerable debate among historians. No one actually knows for sure when the Bell was first fractured.

One story is that the Bell got its first crack in 1752 when it was tested upon its arrival in Philadelphia. Also unproven is that on July 8,1835, the Bell cracked during the funeral procession for Chief Justice John Marshall.

So when did the Bell crack up? It literally happened in February 1846 when it was rung on President's Day, Washington's birthday. It stopped ringing because of the damage from the large crack.

Photo by Andrea Hamilton / Pixabay
From 1753 to 1846, the Bell in the State House tolled for many momentous occasions. In the 18th century, the Bell rang for these events:

February 1757 – during the meeting of the Assembly, which would send Benjamin Franklin to England to address Colonial grievances

March 1757 – upon the arrival of Lord Louden from New York

February 1761 – in honor of King George III ascending the throne

September 1764 – upon the repeal of the Sugar Act

October 1765 – to summon citizens to a public meeting to discuss the Stamp Act

September 1770 – after a resolution claiming that the British Parliament's latest taxation schemes were subversive of Pennsylvanians' constitutional rights.

February 1771 – to call the Assembly together to petition the King for a repeal of tea duties

December 25, 1773 – when the ship Polly was bringing "monopoly" tea into Philadelphia, and it wouldn’t be allowed to land nor bring its tea to the custom house

June 1774 – even though the steeple needed repair, a muffled tolling announced the Intolerable Acts, which included the closure of the Port of Boston

April 1775 – to announce the Battle of Lexington and Concord

1787 – the Bell was rung upon the ratification of the Constitution

1790 – tolled at the death of Benjamin Franklin

March 1797 – rung during the inauguration of John Adams

December 1799 – tolled during the death of George Washington

When war came to the Philadelphia region, the bell was taken down in September 1777, shipped inland, and hidden in an Allentown church basement for its protection. This was to keep the British from confiscating it and using the material for cannons. In June 1778, the Bell was brought back to Philadelphia. Sadly, it couldn't be hung because the steeple was in worse condition than before. The Bell was put back in storage for seven more years. It wasn't until 1785 that the Bell was rehung in the rebuilt State House steeple.

You can listen to the sound of the Liberty Bell on D-Day, June 6, 1944, during a radio broadcast. While the sound doesn’t sound as majestic as expected, it is because the bell is no longer rung the traditional way, but with a mallet tapping the side of the Bell. 

The Bell was brought down from the steeple of Independence Hall and placed in the "Declaration Chamber" in 1852. Since that time, it has traveled around the eastern half of the United States for significant patriotic events. Now the Bell is in a permanent home at the Liberty Bell Center, opened to the public in 2003 and operated by the National Park Service.


Resources Used
10 fascinating facts about the Liberty Bell | The National Constitution Center 
US History – Independence Hall Association 
This Day in History, by Tara Ross


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