You have to see the Liberty Bell if you’re visiting Philadelphia; it’s just one of those things. Don’t set your hopes too high—it is just a bell after all—and not a very well-made one at that. But the real attraction here is not the 2,080-pound piece of metal; it is what it has come to symbolize for people. The iconic symbol of United States’ independence and the birth of democracy, the bell has also been adopted as a symbol for other groups’ fights for freedom, including freedom from slavery and the women’s rights movement. In fact, the abolitionists were the ones who began calling it the “Liberty Bell.”
The bell’s strategic position offers an uninterrupted view of Independence Hall, making it one of the most photographed spots in the city. There is some debate over the details of the bell’s history, but it goes something like this: Originally built for the tower of the State House (now Independence Hall), it was cast in London and arrived in Philadelphia in 1752. It was built to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, a document that had established unprecedented freedoms to the people of Pennsylvania and whose principles form a basis for some of the content of the National Constitution that would follow.
As for the cracks, the first occurred during its first ring in a test run. It was recast two years later by two local guys, John Stow and John Pass, who took the opportunity to carve their own names into it, which can be seen today. The bell purportedly was rung for several important events, including the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. No one is sure when it rang for the last time, but some claim it was for George Washington’s birthday in 1846, at which point the cracks were so bad that the bell was rendered useless.
Housed in Independence Hall for more than 200 years, it was moved to Liberty Bell Pavilion in 1976 for the bicentennial. In 2003 it was moved again to its current home in the Liberty Bell Center (501 Market St., 215/965-2305; Mon.-Fri. 9am-5pm; free), a modern glass-enclosed mini-museum and multimedia gallery containing documents, images, and a short History Channel film exploring facts and myths surrounding the bell, available in nine languages. The bell’s strategic position offers an uninterrupted view of Independence Hall, making it one of the most photographed spots in the city. On the bell, Pennsylvania is spelled “Pensylvania,” which was one of several acceptable spellings at the time. It is engraved with the message “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Philadelphia.