Friday, September 16, 2011

Proclaim Liberty Throughout all the Land

The Assembly of the Province of Pennsylvania gave instructions to Superintendents Isaac Norris, Thomas Leech and Edward Warmer to purchase a bell which would be cast in England. The bell, weighing approximately 2000 pounds, was cast fifty years after William Penn issued his Charter of Privileges.

Pennsylvania was founded in 1701 and in 1751 the Pennsylvania Assembly commissioned the purchase of a bell to be placed in the bell tower of the Philadelphia State House. The bell was cast in London, England at the Whitechapel Foundry.

The bell was ordered to commemorate the “Jubilee” or 50th year anniversary of the Charter of Privileges.

Their letter dated November 1, 1751, gave instructions that the bell would have an inscription from the Bible, Leviticus 25:10. The inscription was appropriate for the preceding verse declared: “And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year.” 
It has been put forward by Charles Michael Boland, author of Ring in the Jubilee, that Benjamin Franklin proposed the reference for the inscription.

William J. Federer, author of America’s God and Country – Encyclopedia of Quotations states that it was actually Isaac Norris, a member of the Society of Friends, who chose the 10th verse of Leviticus chapter 25 to be placed on the bell.

“And ye shall make hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof, it shall be a jubilee.” Leviticus 25:10

The inscription actually cast on the bell, August 1752, read:


The Old Testament required that every seventh year was to be a ‘Sabbath year.’ According the Leviticus 15:1-7; the land was to have a rest. The “Year of Jubilee” occurred every 50th year and was accompanied by a “Proclamation of Liberty.” According to Leviticus 25:35-55; the poor would be freed from debts, the slave set free from bondage, and ancestral property would be returned to families. Furthermore, there was to be an equitable sale of land.

The ringing of bells within a city was the chief means of communicating important announcements for the citizens. A new bell was ordered to be installed in the newly constructed State House which today is known as Independence Hall. When an Assembly Bell was rung; citizens would gather together to hear news which would then spread throughout the colony. A larger bell was needed to accommodate the growing population of the city of Philadelphia.

After the bell cast for the Pennsylvania State House arrived in the colony; it cracked when it was tested. It is unlikely the bell cracked from poor craftsmanship at the Whitechapel Foundry which is still in existence. It is possible that an improper technique was used when testing the bell after it arrived in Philadelphia. The ship’s log indicates they suffered some severe weather while crossing the Atlantic. Hence, it is likely the damage occurred while on transport to America.

John Adams commented: “The bell cracked because America had not yet been given its freedom by Great Britain.”

John Pass and John Stow, local craftsmen in Philadelphia, broke apart the bell and recast it in 1753. Some people believed the bell did not sound as well as the bell should sound. The bell was broken apart once more and hurriedly recast.

Having cast the bell twice, John Pass and John Stowe thought it was appropriate that their names appear on the bell rather than the initials of Whitechapel Foundry.

The Pennsylvania Gazette, June 7, 1753 declared:

“Last week was raised and fix’d in the Statehouse Steeple, the new great Bell, cast here by Pass and Stow, weighing 2000 lb. with this Motto, Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land, unto all the Inhabitants thereof; Lev xxv. 10.

Pass and Stow chose to place the Biblical reference of “Proclaim Liberty” in a prominent inscription at the top of the bell.

The bell was rung in 1757 when Benjamin Franklin was sent to England to address the grievances of the American colonies. Furthermore, it was tolled in 1761 when King George III ascended the throne of England. It tolled when the citizens of Philadelphia gathered to discuss the Sugar Act of 1764 and the Stamp Act of 1765.

Traditional history states that Bell first cracked on July 8, 1835, while tolling the death of Chief Justice John Marshall. The bell was rung infrequently thereafter. 

The bell was 90 years old in 1846 when a debate broke out between two churches who disputed which church would ring their respective bells on the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday. The Roman Catholic St Peter’s Church and the Episcopalian Christ’s Church wanted the honor of tolling their respective bells. There was actually a fee of $30.00 paid to a church for the honor of ringing a bell on the occasion of Washington’s Birthday. The City Council accepted the proposal of a newspaper man who suggested that the cracked bell in the State House be used on the occasion. 

The City Council of Philadelphia issued an order to repair the Bell so that it could be tolled on February 22nd to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday. The crack was drilled out so that the edges of the crack would not vibrate against each other preventing further damage to the Bell. Consequently, it was the repair, the drilling out of the crack that makes it so visibly pronounced. The work was completed in a timely manner so the bell sounded on the birthday celebration.

It gave out clear notes and loud…until noon, when it received a sort of compound fracture…which put it completely out of tune…” (Public Ledger, 2-26-1846.)

The Bell sounded its last note on February 22, 1846, while celebrating George Washington’s 114th birthday. It was its 95th year from its being ordered from Whitehall Foundry.

The Bell was replaced in the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House by a larger bell in 1828.

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