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The Ring and the Crack

A long time ago, when I lived for a year in Gainesville, Florida, my fifth-grade teacher offered us a deal. Memorize the Gettysburg Address, she promised, and she would buy each of those who did a copy of one of Herbert Zim’s pocket-sized Golden Guides to science. Suitably inspired, and a budding historian even then, I did, and wound up with the guide to astronomy. Only much later in life did I understand the moral significance of Mrs. Bingham’s invitation, given two years after Brown v. Board of Education, at a time when school friends told me they had been to a Ku Klux Klan rally outside town.

Many years later, I was in Washington, D.C., with my younger son Dan, then a tad older than I had been in Gainesville, and we went to the Lincoln Memorial. You read the Gettysburg Address aloud, I told him, and I will do Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. My task proved more difficult than his. I still find it difficult to read the Second Inaugural without being caught up in Lincoln’s profound moral reflection on the mutual guilt of North and South alike, a sentiment that still unsettles me when I recite it, as I sometimes do, to my class.

Americans relate to our past first and foremost through such iconic passages from our history, the great texts from Lincoln or Jefferson, John Winthrop or Martin Luther King. Our deepest inspirations of nationality, however defined, come from words, not images. But of course there are other symbols of nationality and allegiance that we encounter far more frequently. The two most important are the flag, which Congress occasionally fears will become the object of a mass burning hysteria from demented dissenters, and the "Star Spangled Banner," which we often hear in the grotesque performances that accompany sporting events (the most popular appearing to be painfully slow down-home romantic soliloquies—but it was a tavern tune originally, so why not?).

It would be easy to assume that the flag and the anthem have always been the central cultural symbols of our nationality. But in fact that has not been the case, writes Gary Nash, in this fast-moving and engaging history of a different and, he argues, superior, symbol: the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. The Pledge of Allegiance to the flag was not composed until 1892, eventually becoming the source of daily school recitals and occasional litigation, from the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the late 1930s and early 1940s to the atheist Michael Newdow’s more recent judicial quest. Then, too, the Stars and Stripes went through a long post-Civil War period as something less than a banner of universal nationality. Perhaps even now, lingering Southern attachment to the rival Stars and Bars may embody more than Confederate re-enactors’ cultural fondness for the Lost Cause. And while the "Star Spangled Banner" was composed back in 1814, only in 1931 did it acquire its official status as national anthem.

Before then, Nash argues, it was the Liberty Bell that best symbolized American patriotism. The bell became a sacred icon that was periodically sent out on vast, sometimes serpentine railroad missions across the country, its going and coming hallowed by faithful Philadelphians who cherished its presence. People turned out at all hours to see it displayed at major city fairs, and at odd hours in by-ways of the fruited plains. How and why this was the case is the subject of this fine book.

The commanding status of the Liberty Bell, Nash suggests, was owed to two major sources. One was the biblical text from Leviticus that gave the bell its name: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof”—a universal creed that celebrated the one political value that eighteenth-century Americans and Britons cherished most. The second was the much mythologized association of the bell with Philadelphia, home to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and especially with the story concocted in 1847 by a young newspaperman named George Lippard, which tells of the young messenger boy and the aged bell-keeper ringing the bell on July 4, 1776 to proclaim independence.

Gary Nash has spent a half-century studying early American history, and he is exactly the right person to tell this story. Nash gained controversial celebrity when he became the object of the unholy wrath of Lynne Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, and other conservatives after he led an effort to draw up a set of national educational standards that would better represent the kind of history that scholars have been writing since the 1960s—a history that would recognize the multiple struggles for liberty that have accompanied American politics since the founding.

Nash begins his book with the history of the bell itself—or rather of the original bell, cast by the venerable firm of Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London. This first bell cracked on its first Philadelphia peal in 1752. The recast Pass-Stow bell debuted with a dispiriting thud the next year; but a second recast bell, by the same artisans, performed better in August 1753 and was soon installed in the statehouse. From this point on, it performed a variety of civic functions, and though it did not proclaim independence on July 4, 1776, as the legend says it did, the Old Bell became part of Philadelphia’s civic identity. The crack that compromised its effective functioning appeared some time in the mid-nineteenth century—as a result of ringings in 1843 and 1846, in Nash’s view, rather than another ringing occasioned by the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835.

From the role of the bell as Philadelphia tocsin, Nash quickly moves on to its cultural story. A part of that story, of course, is the appeal of its message to agitators for social change, beginning with the abolitionists after 1840. What better symbol could there be for the nation’s unfulfilled promise than a bell whose true message could never be heard until American liberty became universal throughout the land? That was the great genius of the phrase that Isaac Norris (later father-in-law to John Dickinson, the Pennsylvania Farmer) had fixed upon when he turned to Leviticus for the text.

Once past the Civil War, Nash traces the bell’s repeated travels across the land, as Philadelphians were besieged with heartfelt pleas from schoolchildren across the country to allow this relic of the Revolution to make one more extended trip on the nation’s rails. Readers may get a bit car-sick with the bell’s travels, and from Nash’s account of how the bell was expropriated for any of a number of uses, from the patriotic to the commercial, in modern times. Perhaps that is the cost of doing this kind of cultural history—but the pace is brisk and the story is good.

The great payoff of the story occurs only as Nash (who knows old Philadelphia as well as the great English historian Richard Cobb knew Revolutionary Paris) finally traces the modern movement of the bell from a quiet out-of-the-way plaza near Benjamin Franklin’s house to its new resting place between Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center. Its new home at Sixth and Market Streets was not some miscellaneous urban lot: it adjoins the space where a house was successively inhabited by two prominent Philadelphia slave-owners, Mayor William Masters and William Penn’s grandson Richard, and then by British general Sir William Howe, and the American Superintendent of Finance Robert Morris. When the national government returned to Philadelphia late in 1790, Morris leased the house to President George Washington, so it became the executive mansion—and the place where he employed a significant contingent of indentured servants and slaves (some his own, others belonging to Martha), while worrying that the latter would take advantage of Pennsylvania’s law allowing freedom to slaves after six months’ residence.

The site was thus intimately associated with the history of American slavery as well as American liberty—and with all the complexity and the moral discomfort that most historians (other than Lynne Cheney, who is now writing a biography of James Madison) believe is inevitable if our history is to be properly understood and rightly taught. This, of course, was exactly the theme of Nash’s earlier efforts on behalf of curricular reform, a commitment based not on some dyed-in-the-red wooly-haired progressive naïveté, but on a deep engagement with the American past. The National Park Service had agreed with the Organization of American Historians that such intermingling of the complexity of the record should be a theme of our great historical sites. But the local officials responsible for the site were seemingly unconvinced. Their original plans were designed to mask complexity, not portray it, lest patriotic visitors experience an unhinging “dissonance” when they viewed the bell in its new site. But once historians, with Nash in the forefront, protested, and with the support of the Park Service’s leading historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, and the city’s mobilized African-American community, the presentation was significantly reviewed and revised.

In the eighteenth century, liberty was the dominant value of Anglo-American political culture, but its meaning remained vague and vacuous. As John Phillip Reid, one of its closest students, has argued, one could barely understand what the term meant without considering it in juxtaposition to its evil twin, “licentiousness.” To see its existence as a struggle, and not a simple heroic legacy, better captures its essential meaning, and Gary Nash’s nifty quick treatment of this icon explains exactly why.

Jack Rakove’s new book is Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010).