“My District” gives NCSL members a chance to tell us about life in the places they represent, from the high-profile events to the fun facts only locals know.
Commissioned by the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1751, the Liberty Bell called legislators to session up until the 1840s, when a final crack put it out of commission. No one knows exactly when it first cracked, but a 19th century repair job that involved widening the fissure precipitated a second crack that became a death knell: The Liberty Bell rang no more.
The loss of the bell’s acoustics, however, marked the beginning of its fame. Journalist George Lippard’s 1847 story “Ring, Grandfather, Ring” described the ringing of the Liberty Bell after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This fictious story captured the public’s imagination and immortalized the Liberty Bell as a symbol of independence. From the 1880s to 1915, the bell went on multiple tours across America, awing the public and reaching nearly one-third of the U.S. population. Along the way, the bell and its inscription, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof,” became a powerful emblem of hope for people fighting for freedom, including abolitionists, suffragists and civil rights activists.
“No one alive today has ever heard the bell ring freely, but we still feel the reverberations of its tolls,” says Senator Nikil Saval (D), left, whose 1st District includes the Liberty Bell site. “The Liberty Bell has become a symbol of the power of the people, and we gather to its clarion call to stand together against injustice.”
The Liberty Bell is now on permanent display at the Liberty Bell Center, which is managed by the National Park Service and visited by millions of tourists every year.
We recently caught up with Saval and Representative Mary-Louise Isaacson (D), right, of the 175th District to ask about the bell’s impact on their constituents and the nation.
What does it mean to you and your community to be home to a beacon of freedom and independence?
Isaacson: The many symbols of freedom and independence in my district are constant reminders of the founding principles of this country, the dreams and vision that our Founding Fathers had, and the just system we’re working towards to correct the grave injustices and missteps made along the way. To truly honor history, you must recognize the parts that you’re not proud to build a better future. Every time I walk past historical sites such as Independence Hall, the Betsy Ross House, the Museum of the American Revolution and Carpenters’ Hall, I am reminded of the immense progress we’ve made thus far, and the long way we still have to go. I carry this with me when I vote on the House floor on behalf of all Pennsylvanians with fairness, equality and justice in mind.
Saval: The 1st District is home to people whose families have lived here for generations, and those who are newly arrived, brought by the same hopes and dreams that have inspired people to put down their roots here for centuries. Our district is one of the most racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse in Pennsylvania.
Those who visit our district, especially around the Liberty Bell, come from all over the country and all around the world. The bell’s toll has always been used to bring people together. The Liberty Bell was first known as the “State House bell.” In its original use, the bell was rung as a signal for townspeople to gather for news, and lawmakers to gather for their meetings. While its import was always in bringing people together, it did not become a symbol of liberty until the 19th century. The inscription on the bell became a rallying cry for abolitionists in their fight to end slavery. The bell was first referred to as the “Liberty Bell” in 1835 in the “Anti-Slavery Record,” an abolitionist publication, and the name was adopted gradually over the following years. The Liberty Bell has since inspired the women’s suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and many others who have fought against an unjust status quo.
How has the Liberty Bell shaped your district and its values?
Isaacson: The Liberty Bell inscription, a reminder of freedom and inclusivity, accurately reflects the progressive values of the 175th district. We value environmental conservation, quality public education, equitable access to health care, racial justice, and equality for all peoples.
Saval: The Liberty Bell was ordered from England and shipped to Philadelphia. But on the very first test ring, the bell cracked. The metal that it was made from was too brittle to withstand the task for which it was created. Local metalworkers melted down the original bell and recast it here, in Philadelphia, where it would ring for nearly 100 years.
In this origin story, I see Philadelphia’s roots as a city in which working people save the day. We value our trades, our labor. I see the importance of building structures that are strong but not rigid. My city knows that things will break, that things will fall apart; and when that happens, we must come together and try again. We cannot build structures that can’t withstand the blows of our times.
What does the Liberty Bell mean to you personally?
Isaacson: I live in Northern Liberties, so my daughter and I regularly take walks through the Historic District and past the Liberty Bell. The streets are always filled with people, both tourists and residents alike, either there to admire and learn about the Liberty Bell or just passing by on their way to work, lunch, or to visit friends. And while living down the street from sites of such historic importance may make some people forget, the Liberty Bell is a constant visual reminder to me that our liberties and rights today have been hard fought for—and unfortunately, are still often under attack by not only systemic oppression and racism, but by special interest groups and lobbyists. The Liberty Bell is a constant reminder to me to keep fighting so that its inscription finally rings true for all people in our great country.
Saval: Philadelphia has a reputation for being a scrappy city, rough around the edges. The Liberty Bell, reforged from a broken bell and distinguished by a gaping crack that was purposefully widened in hopes of repairing a much smaller crack, is its perfect symbol. The Liberty Bell presents as a force of chaotic good, showing Philadelphia’s free spirit and its good heart, while maintaining its propensity for disruption of an unjust status quo. We must always take our symbols of freedom and liberty and bring them with us into unchartered territories. It is right that the bell became a symbol of abolition, of women’s suffrage, of civil rights. We keep its spirit alive by bringing it with us in our current struggles to dismantle racism, to end poverty and to build a world in which everyone can truly thrive.
What else is great about your district? What other attractions should people see?
Isaacson: One of my favorite facts about the 175th Legislative District and the seat that I currently serve in as the elected representative, is that it was, in fact, Benjamin Franklin’s seat when he was a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. So, in a way, I carry the torch that he first lit, which is frankly an honor. Other attractions, historic sites and museums people should see in the district are Penn Treaty Park, the Chinatown Friendship Arch, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, the National Museum of American Jewish History, Christ Church, Reading Terminal Market, and so many others!
Saval: Our district is home to some of the country’s greatest arts institutions and museums. We have the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Rodin Museum, the Franklin Institute and the Academy of Natural Sciences, to name just a few! We have the Avenue of the Arts, with its dance and theater companies, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. All of Philadelphia’s sports teams play in our district! And we have some of Philadelphia’s most iconic neighborhoods and some of its most beautiful and widely used parks—Rittenhouse Square, Penn Treaty Park, Fairmount Park, the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge, and FDR Park, along with dozens of smaller community parks, where farmers markets set up to offer local food and produce, friends sit and enjoy each other’s company, and families bring their children to play on hot summer nights. Our architecture includes some of Philly’s newest structures and some of its oldest houses.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Ben Mathios is an intern for NCSL.