J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

“All this commotion about the Bell”

In his short book The Liberty Bell, Gary B. Nash quotes from a reminiscence by William Linn which he could credit only to “Unidentified source from Independence National Historical Park files.”

Google Books let me find Linn’s statement at greater length in The Liberty Bell: Its History, Associations and Home, a booklet compiled by E. R. Gudehus and published by the city of Philadelphia in 1915.

The full recollection was:
All this commotion about the Bell makes me think of my boyhood days, when we would go down to the old Bell and, with paving stones, try to knock off a piece of it.

If the Bell would break at all, it would have broken then, when these boys hammered it with pieces of iron and stones trying to get a piece off.

For nearly a hundred years no one had paid any particular attention to the Bell. Then came the Centennial, when the worship began, although it had hung in the Hall for years. That was done, no doubt, to save it, or the boys would have broken it all up.
There was an attorney named William Linn in Philadelphia active in Republican politics in the late 1800s. He died on 22 Nov 1922, according to the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger. The 24 November Reading Eagle stated that he had been a Civil War officer and “more than 70 years of age.” In the following year, Linn’s widow sent the Public Ledger a manuscript of his reminiscences of old Philadelphia. So I’m thinking that man’s probably the source of this anecdote, and it refers to the period around 1850.

As Nash shows, the bell was just becoming famous then because Abolitionists adopted it as a symbol of freedom and author George Lippard had linked it fictionally to the Declaration of Independence. But people hadn’t yet accepted the value of preserving something old for everyone, as opposed to trying to take a souvenir of it for oneself. In 1852 the city moved the bell from a little-visited upper floor of Independence Hall to the ground floor—though I can’t tell whether that meant boys had less of a chance to pound on it, or more.

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