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BOOK REVIEW: History of the famously flawed bell
What do Fred Astaire, the hamburger, Gypsy Rose Lee and the Liberty Bell have in common? According to Yale University Press, they’re all American icons and, as such, the focal points for a series of short books “about American history and culture through the lens of a single iconic individual, event, object, or cultural phenomenon.”
The Liberty Bell, writes Gary B. Nash, professor of history at UCLA and a native Philadelphian, is one of those iconic objects. “It is America’s most famous relic, a nearly sacred totem. Several million people each year make a pilgrimage to see it. … Everywhere around the world it is regarded as a universal symbol of freedom. … As icons go, there’s nothing quite like it short of the Rosetta Stone or the Holy Grail.”
The Holy Grail may be a stretch. But Mr. Nash is enthusiastic about his subject, and that enthusiasm gives life and vigor to his story of the history of the famously flawed bell, its seven trips around the nation and its status as a touchstone for national hopes and aspirations.
Mr. Nash takes us through the casting, recasting and situating of the bell, and in strong and evocative prose, he describes the moment that made it iconic: “After two days of solemn debate, the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4 and ordered it printed. Newspapers rolled the Declaration off their presses on July 6. Two more days elapsed before its first public reading. Dawn ushered in a ‘warm, sunshine’ morning on July 8, 1776, and the Old Bell began to peal around 11 a.m..
“With people massed in the State House yard, Colonel John Nixon, son of an Irish immigrant, read the Declaration of Independence at high noon. Three huzzahs followed the reading, and then the bell began to clang, part of a chorus of church bells pealing throughout the city. It was the moment for which the bell would become forever famous.”
A year later, “the celebrations turned to consternation as the British army bore down on Philadelphia.” Knowing that the British would melt the bell down for cannonballs and musket shot, patriots loaded it on a wagon “which then made its way … to the small German-dominated town of Bethlehem in company of a seven-hundred-wagon train with a military escort of some two-hundred cavalrymen from North Carolina and Virginia.”
At Allentown, its final destination, the bell was hidden beneath the floor of the Zion German Reformed Church. “Like a high-value diplomat secreted behind false paneling in a small embassy room, the Old Bell waited out the British occupation of Philadelphia.”
It’s this sort of evocative prose and historical detail that animates this slender volume. Occasionally, as “a major figure in the field of social history, writing on ethnicity, class, gender” and, as such, holding approved academic views on these subjects, Mr. Nash feels obliged to punctuate his narrative with mini-lectures on politically correct topics.
Nevertheless, his treatment of the people and groups using the bell as touchstone and symbol - among them abolitionists, suffragettes (Susan B. Anthony appears briefly), civil rights demonstrators, antiwar activists and anti-antiwar activists (Young Americans for Freedom show the colors), all of whom saw their causes justified in the bell’s inscription (“Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof) - is generally sympathetic and inclusive. But most important are those several million ordinary Americans who travel to Philadelphia each year to visit the Liberty Bell.
Each summer, Mr. Nash leads public school teachers on tours of Philadelphia, “helping those educators bring history alive to their students.” The January 2009 issue of the History Teacher was devoted to Mr. Nash and his work, in honor of “his manifold services to public education and his commitment to the work of expanding public knowledge of history.”
This book admirably reflects that commitment.
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).
© Copyright 2013 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.
By Tom Fitton
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