Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Gary B. Nash's "The Liberty Bell"

Gary B. Nash is professor emeritus of history at UCLA. He is former president of the Organization of American Historians, and his 1979 book The Urban Crucible: Social Change, Political Consciousness, and the Origins of the American Revolution was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Liberty Bell, and reported the following:
Each year, some two million visitors line up near Philadelphia's Independence Hall and wait to gaze upon a flawed mass of metal forged more than two and a half-centuries ago. Since its original casting in England in 1751, the Liberty Bell has captured the imagination--and hearts--of Americans and come to symbolize freedom both here and abroad. Now voiceless after cracking in 1843 while tolling George Washington's birthday, the Liberty Bell has been adopted by disparate groups--abolitionists, woman suffragists, Cold Warriors, Civil Rights activists, and right-wing fundamentalists--all of whom found inspiration in its biblical inscription: "Proclaim liberty thro' the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.".

Worship of the Liberty Bell grew tremendously after the Civil War when it made seven road trips, from 1885 to 1915 to almost every region of the country. On p. 99 of Liberty Bell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), I describe its third cross-country trek in 1895 to attend the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta.
Everywhere along the route southward, people flocked to see it. "Like a benediction,” reported Philadelphia's Public Record, the Liberty Bell rolled through the Roanoke Valley, over the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains, and down through the valley of East Tennessee “on this ideal Sabbath.” At a whistle-stop in tiny Elliston, Virginia, a 70-year-old great grandson of Patrick Henry “pressed forward and craved permission to touch the Bell.” In Bristol, Tennessee, an 88-year-old woman fell on her knees before the bell and “invoked a Divine blessing upon the old mass of historic iron."

When the train reached the Atlanta depot on October 8, 1895, the aura the bell created astounded even the exposition directors, who had planned a public holiday for its arrival. For two miles, the bell train slowly passed through walls of cheering Georgians as every steam whistle in the city shrieked its welcome. The crowd broke through guardrails and rushed to the flatcar to touch the bell. “Several children, held up by their parents,” reported the Atlanta Constitution, “kissed the revered old bell and happily patted its great brazen sides, hardly knowing what they were doing or why, but feeling, as all present did, that electric thrill of self-satisfaction and national pride.” The city’s school children, having been told about the bell’s history, were given city transit discounts to get to the fair. For good luck, boys rubbed coins over its surface, and a blind child was held up to passed his fingers over the inscription. [endnotes not included]
Read more about The Liberty Bell at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue