The Liberty Bell

Stephen Conway on an engaging short discussion of one of America’s potent symbols of liberty

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Reviewed by: Stephen Conway
Author: Gary B Nash
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £16.99

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Histories of objects are interesting new ways in which we can understand the past. Gary Nash’s short study of the Liberty Bell and its contested symbolism is a good example of what is fast becoming an established genre.

While written with an American readership in mind, the book should appeal to anyone interested in cultural history.   

The Liberty Bell was originally installed in Philadelphia’s State House in the middle of the 18th century. The bell bore the biblical legend: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof”. Intended to inspire Pennsylvanians, the bell became associated with American freedom after the creation of the United States later in the century.

By the middle of the 19th century, the need to manufacture national unity in a country of immigrants meant that the Liberty Bell had been elevated to the status of a revered symbol of American liberty – and it was promoted as much as the Stars and Stripes and the Declaration of Independence itself.

Nash charts the history of the bell and what it has meant to various sections of American society. No sooner did it become an emblem of liberty secured for many Americans than it acted as a potent reminder of liberty denied for others.

The bell was used by abolitionists in their fight against slavery, by women’s rights groups, by campaigners against child labour, and, most recently, by black Americans seeking true equality. Only now, the author concludes, is it everyone’s bell. 

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Stephen Conway is professor of history at University College London