George Lippard, a young journalist, penned the story of how the Old Bell (as the Liberty Bell was known back then) announced the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and thus the Liberty Bell came to be known by its familiar name. But Lippard wrote this story in early 1847—long after the nation’s birth. Was he right? According to Gary Nash in The Liberty Bell, it’s a good story, but it’s a little off.
When the Continental Congress in Philadelphia completed and approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Declaration was not immediately given a public reading.* It did not take place until July 8, 1776. Presumably the presses needed time to print off the declaration. On that warm, bright morning, the Old Bell pealed around 11 a.m., calling people to gather in the State House yard. Colonel John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence at noon. The Old Bell rang at the conclusion of the reading along with the numerous other church bells throughout the city. And that is the moment for which the Liberty Bell is so famous. This began the tradition in Philadelphia of commemorating the nation’s independence on July 4th by ringing bells, a tradition that has died away. One year we will bring it back.
And just where did the crack in the bell come from? Of course, there are different accounts. It probably cracked in the 1830s or 1840s. One story claims that the bell cracked when it tolled on July 8, 1835 for John Marshall’s funeral procession. He was the longest-serving chief justice of the Supreme Court. In another account, the bell cracked while ringing the announcement of the Great Britain’s Catholic Relief Act in May 1829. In yet another account, the bell cracked while ringing for the centennial celebration of George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1832. And the list of accounts goes on. The most likely story is that the bell first cracked when it was rung on Washington’s birthday in 1843, and the crack worsened to the point of making the bell mute when it was rung again for his birthday in 1846.
*Information in this post taken from Gary Nash, The Liberty Bell, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.