The Liberty Bell’s Wagon Trip

In 1777, things looked bleak for the fledgling United States of America. The rebellion against Britain was going badly, the rebel leader George Washington had lost a series of crucial battles near Philadelphia, the city was about to be occupied by the British Army, and the Liberty Bell in Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence had been adopted, looked like it would be captured and likely melted down to make cannon.

Then, the Liberty Bell was saved by a wagon trip–carried out by an ancestor of mine . . .

(photo from Library of Congress)

In 1751, the city of Philadelphia needed a new bell.

In those pre-communications days, city governments called their citizens together with the ringing of a bell, whether to pass on important proclamations and announcements or to gather the local militia and citizens in response to some threat or danger. When the new Pennsylvania State House building was completed to serve as the capitol for the colony, the colonial government sent to London to have a new bell cast. The new bell was, the officials specified, to be of 2,000 pounds in size, and to have the inscription “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.-Levit. XXV. 10”. The bell arrived from London in August 1752, was eagerly placed on a wooden stand and rung to test the sound–and cracked. City officials tried to return the bell to London to have it re-cast, but the ship that had brought it didn’t have enough room to take it back.

Two local iron founders, named Pass and Stow, offered to re-cast it, though they had never made a bell before. They broke the London bell into pieces, melted them down, added a bit more copper to make it less brittle, then cast it into a mold. When the bell was delivered in March 1753, city officials publicly tested it. This time it didn’t crack, but instead of a proper bell ring, it made an odd clanging sound. Pass and Stow, mocked by the crowd, sheepishly took the bell back to their shop, melted it down, added some tin, and re-cast it again. This time, the bell seemed acceptable, and it was hung in the steeple of the State House in June 1753. Over the years, it was rung to call the State Assembly together, to call public meetings and militia musterings, and also on special occasions such as (in a wonderful historical irony) the ascension of King George III to the British throne in 1761. According to later mythology, which may or may not be true, as the colonies became more rebellious, the bell was also rung to call citizens together for heated public discussion, of the Sugar Act in 1764 and the Stamp Act in 1765. By 1775, however, and perhaps earlier, the steeple in the State House was beginning to deteriorate, and the bell was no longer rung as it was feared the wooden tower might collapse.

In 1775, at Lexington and Concord, the American Revolution broke out. On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress, inside the Pennsylvania State House (which would be known afterwards as “Independence Hall”). When the Declaration was first read in Philadelphia on July 8 (not on July 4, as is commonly believed), every available bell in the city was rung in celebration–but it is not known whether the bell in the State House was rung on that day, or whether the poor condition of the bell tower prevented that. Thus, in another irony, the State House bell–destined to be known as The Liberty Bell–may not have actually participated in the event for which it is most famous.

In 1777, the British Army launched a campaign to capture Philadelphia, and defeated Washington’s forces at the Battle of Brandywine. With Philadelphia now open for occupation by the British, the Continental Congress fled the city. All 11 of the large bronze bells in the city, including the bell in the State House tower, were removed, to prevent the British from melting them down and casting the bronze into cannon. The bells, along with baggage, refugees, and other items from Philadelphia, were loaded onto a 700-wagon train, guarded and escorted by 200 cavalry from the North Carolina 4th Regiment. The State House bell was in the care of a member of the Pennsylvania militia named John Jacob Mickley. The wagon train made its way up the Bethlehem Pike towards the Lehigh Valley. On September 23 in Bethlehem, just four miles from their destination, Mickley’s wagon broke down and he had to remain behind while the rest of the wagon train moved on. The heavy bell had to be laboriously transferred to another cart, owned by a militia member from Philadelphia named Frederick Lieser.

At least two of the bells from Philadelphia, including the State House bell, ended up at the Zion Reformed Church, in Allentown, which was being used by the Continental Army as a military hospital. They were buried under the floorboards, and stayed there until June 1778, when the British troops left Philadelphia. When the bells were returned to the city, the State House bell, with its tower still in bad shape, was placed in storage until the steeple was rebuilt in 1785, two years after the United States of America won its independence from England in the Treaty of Paris. After that, the bell was rung to call the state legislature into session, and also each year to commemorate the Fourth of July and Washington’s Birthday.

It wasn’t until after the anti-slavery Abolitionist Movement adopted the State House bell as one of its symbols, however, in 1835, that it began to be referred to as “The Liberty Bell”. It was also around this time that the bell’s first crack appeared. Historical sources are unclear when this happened; it may have been as the bell was being rung for the death of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835, or sometime between 1841 and 1845 on the Fourth of July or Washington’s Birthday. What is known with certainty is that officials tried to repair the crack by filling it with metal, but when the bell was rung for Washington’s Birthday in 1846, the crack was enlarged beyond repair, and the bell was never rung again.

In 1848, the Liberty Bell was removed from the bell tower and placed on an ornate pedestal inside Independence Hall, where it remained through the Civil War before being hung from the ceiling in the Assembly Room. From 1885 to 1915, the bell made a number of railroad tours across the nation before returning to be displayed inside Independence Hall. In 1975, in preparation for the Bicentennial celebrations, the Liberty Bell was moved to a glass pavilion outside on Independence Mall, then to a more secure pavilion in 2003, where it remains today.

The Liberty Bell’s wagon trip has special significance to your humble narrator, since I am a descendant of John Jacob Mickley through my mother’s side (my maternal grandmother was Alice Mickley).


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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.