The Liberty Bell (review)
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The Liberty Bell. By Gary B. Nash. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. 242. $24.00 cloth)

This short biography of an American icon delivers an efficient and engaging account of the place of the bell in U.S. history. Historian Gary Nash—one of the nation's preeminent historians of the American Revolution—attends not only to the changing role of the bell in the mainstream political and cultural history of the country but also to the parallel reception and alternate meanings of the bell among African and Native American communities. The result is a narrative that is brisk and instructive, yet also subtle and complex.

Unsurprisingly, the book is full of fun tidbits. Readers learn, for instance, that the Whitechapel Foundry—still in operation today—continues to maintain that the Pennsylvania Statehouse bell, which gained its famous crack almost instantly, "was damaged in transit or was the victim of an inexperienced bell ringer" (p. 7), that the bell, had it not been spirited out of Philadelphia before the British occupation, might have provided some thirty thousand rounds of enemy ammunition, and that the bell made no fewer than seven cross-country road trips between 1885 and 1915.

Early chapters trace the history of the bell from its arrival in Pennsylvania through the tumult of the Revolution to its christening as the "Liberty Bell," a product of antislavery activism. But readers [End Page 87] drawn to the book because they are already somewhat familiar with those stories—or whose curiosity was piqued by the cameo appearance of the bell in National Treasure—may find still more fascinating the chapters that take up the story of the bell in the latter half of the nineteenth century and through the twentieth.

By the time of the national centennial in 1876, the Liberty Bell had begun to assume its iconic status, a symbol of unity "that would bind the nation's wounds" and "complete the process of reconciliation" (p. 64). But the bell would continue to have different meanings for different observers, from the Blackfeet chief Little Bear, who posed alongside the bell at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition, to the members of the Congress of Racial Equality who staged a 1963 sit-in there.

Indeed, the malleable and contested meanings of the bell are Nash's main concern. Nash himself became deeply engaged in such contestation when he helped ignite controversy over the contemporary interpretation of the bell. In the early 1990s, Nash explains, the National Park Service (NPS), which assumed custody of the bell in the 1940s, began planning to move it to a new home, a site more accessible to its thousands of annual visitors. The site chosen—the corner of Sixth and Market Streets—dripped with irony; the onetime site of the McMasters mansion and later the home of President George Washington, was ground once walked by the enslaved men and women who made Washington's leadership, and the new nation itself, possible. But the planned exhibit, many were stunned to learn, would not engage that difficult issue. Nash explains how tensions between local and national forces both within and beyond the NPS in time "erupted in sharp, even venomous debate" (p. 201).

Nash was a key player in those debates, and his account delivers more than just a summary of them; the book preserves his own perspective on those contentious conversations, which resulted in a substantial overhaul of the exhibition plans. In fact, the book in some ways allows readers unable to make the trip to Philadelphia to get some sense of the story the exhibit now conveys. Nash seems [End Page 88] satisfied with the outcome. Quoting NPS Chief Historian Dwight Pitcaithley (who shared Nash's point of view on the interpretive imperative here), he concludes that "the 'liberty road' has been filled with potholes and obstacles and while the United States has a more expansive definition of freedom and liberty than it did one hundred or even fifty years ago, the struggle is not over" (p. 216); still, Nash posits, the bell, now situated in the context of the revised exhibition, today "is truly everyone's bell."