Proclaiming Liberty, part II

By the nation’s Centennial Celebration in 1876, the Liberty Bell was one of the most prominent symbols of the country, a standing only rivaled by the face of George Washington.* The cracked Liberty Bell was represented on all kinds of commemorative commercial products sold at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Plates, glasses, pitchers, coins, even spoons. You could have a whole Liberty Bell feast! Today if you think of the top symbols for the United States, the Statue of Liberty comes to mind, and would probably edge out the Liberty Bell for its symbolic power. The Statue of Liberty wasn’t completed until 1886, though, so the Liberty Bell reigned as one of the top American symbols in the nineteenth century.

The pervasiveness of the Liberty Bell is demonstrated by all the American causes that appropriated it. The abolitionists in the first half of the nineteenth century were first. Later in the twentieth century, the Liberty Bell was used to advertise war bonds for both WWI and WWII. Those involved in the Suffrage movement and the Civil Rights movement also used the Liberty Bell as a symbol for their calls for justice.

A desire to hide the complicated reality of freedom in the United States led site planners to not disclose the detailed history of the current site of our Liberty Bell. At the Liberty Bell Center adjacent to Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the home of George Washington once stood. And Washington was a slave owner. So one of the most potent symbols for freedom in our nation is proudly housed at the site of an equally potent contradiction—the first president of our country, a visionary dedicated to this experimental enterprise in freedom, also denied liberty to a class of people living within his country and home. The National Park Service was committed to presenting this unsettling topic at the new Liberty Center as they were planning it in the 1990s. The local leadership of the center, however, did not desire to create intellectual dissonance for visitors. And so, in order to not sully the public’s sanitized view of our country’s birth, the full history of the site was not presented when the center opened in 2003.

There is a favorable resolution to this tale, though. In December 2010, after the urging of a U.S. House of Representatives Report in 2003, a historical commemoration of the President’s House was placed next to the Liberty Bell Center, a project which explains Washington’s connection to slavery.

Symbols represent our ideals, not our realities. The Liberty Bell needs to be understood as such in order to see the uncensored history of the United States.

* First three paragraphs taken from Gary Nash, The Liberty Bell, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.

“Proclaim liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof”

The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell

George Lippard, a young journalist, penned the story of how the Old Bell (as the Liberty Bell was known back then) announced the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and thus the Liberty Bell came to be known by its familiar name. But Lippard wrote this story in early 1847—long after the nation’s birth. Was he right? According to Gary Nash in The Liberty Bell, it’s a good story, but it’s a little off.

When the Continental Congress in Philadelphia completed and approved the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Declaration was not immediately given a public reading.* It did not take place until July 8, 1776. Presumably the presses needed time to print off the declaration. On that warm, bright morning, the Old Bell pealed around 11 a.m., calling people to gather in the State House yard. Colonel John Nixon read the Declaration of Independence at noon. The Old Bell rang at the conclusion of the reading along with the numerous other church bells throughout the city. And that is the moment for which the Liberty Bell is so famous. This began the tradition in Philadelphia of commemorating the nation’s independence on July 4th by ringing bells, a tradition that has died away. One year we will bring it back.

And just where did the crack in the bell come from? Of course, there are different accounts. It probably cracked in the 1830s or 1840s. One story claims that the bell cracked when it tolled on July 8, 1835 for John Marshall’s funeral procession. He was the longest-serving chief justice of the Supreme Court. In another account, the bell cracked while ringing the announcement of the Great Britain’s Catholic Relief Act in May 1829. In yet another account, the bell cracked while ringing for the centennial celebration of George Washington’s birthday on February 22, 1832. And the list of accounts goes on. The most likely story is that the bell first cracked when it was rung on Washington’s birthday in 1843, and the crack worsened to the point of making the bell mute when it was rung again for his birthday in 1846.

*Information in this post taken from Gary Nash, The Liberty Bell, New Haven, Yale University Press, 2010.

The Harkness Chimes at Yale

Ah! When I hear those bells, I feel nostalgic for my college days! Or when I hear that glee club sing or marching band play! And THAT, my friends, is my dissertation in a nutshell. I’m sure I’ll come back to the topic of bells and nostalgia more on this blog.

As part of my dissertation research in the Yale archives, I found a small notecard for holiday greetings that had a text meant to be sung to the famous melody from the “Largo” movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World.” This melody, not coincidentally, was heard from the Harkness Memorial Chime on Yale’s campus every day at noon in the early to mid-twentieth century. Can you taste the sentimentality dripping off of these lyrics?

“The Harkness Chimes”
Lyrics by Philip E. Browning

Hail to thee, dear old Yale,
Mother of us all;
Far or near though we be
Still we hear thy call.
‘Neath they elms’ friendly shade,
far in alien climes,
we thy sons hear thy voice
In the campus chimes:

“Seek ye here Light and Truth,
Nurture soul and mind,
Dedicate here your youth,
Learn to serve mankind.”

Age comes on, cares oppress,
Other mem’ries fail;
Lessons learned at thy feet
Linger, Mother Yale.
In our hearts, still enshrined,
youth eternal dwells
Stirred anew by thy voice
in the campus bells:

“Seek ye here Light and Truth,
Nurture soul and mind,
Dedicate here your youth,
Learn to serve mankind.”

I’m curious to hear about the reactions of Yale students and alumni—nostalgia? Affection? Neutral? Something else?

The sentimental touches in the lyrics help foster a sense of nostalgia in its target audience of the notecard—alumni. Yale is “Mother Yale” and the voice of Yale is embodied in the sound of the bells. Youth itself is “stirred anew by thy voice/in the campus bells.” If that’s not a powerful role for the bells, I’m not sure what is.

And don’t forget about the music. It too is ripe for sentimental exploitation. The slow melody is neatly divided into short phrases with mostly step-wise motion. The question-and-answer phrase structure and predictable rhythm also help make this melody easy to sing. So–easy to sing, check! What else makes it ripe for sentimental exploitation? The pentatonic melody. Much has been written by our musicology friends about Westerners equating pentatonic melodies with folk songs or non-Western music. This particular melody is also known as the spiritual “Goin’ Home,” but it’s not clear which came first—this Largo theme or the spiritual.* Folk songs suggest an affection for times gone and past, so this tune itself could prime alumni for thinking about Yale with nostalgia.

The broad message of Yale would be considered a fairly standard one for American universities today: educate yourselves and use it to better the lot of everyone else. At the time, though, this song strategically tied together the concerns of two competing higher education models, the college vs. the university. The college model aimed to create an intimate community among its students and faculty, which the sentimentality of the lyrics and music aim to foster here, while the university model aimed to expand knowledge to better society beyond the university walls. Generalizations, of course, but you get the idea.

* Richard Taruskin, The Nineteenth Century, vol. 3 of The Oxford History of Western Music, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, 765-66.

Saved by the Bell

Bells regulated daily life in European monasteries, then European churches, cities, and universities. New World colleges were fashioned after those of the Old World, and so bells found a home on our campuses. I love this depiction below of the college bell in the lives of Yale students in the nineteenth century.

Under the elms five minutes before the clanging of the remorseless old sentinel in Lyceum belfry! What a fluttering and sometimes cutting of leaves! What a racing through the whole lesson to catch some cue which will enable colloquy men to save an inglorious fizzle, and philosophicals to make a triumphant rush. What varied expressions of countenance! Here smiling complacency, there scowls; this man whistles, that one swears; here the serenity of indifference, there the serenity of despair. Now the bell begins to ring. What slow and toilsome ascent up the narrow stairs! What a sudden bolting into the recitation room as the last stroke dies away, and the door closes with a slam behind the last loiterer, and upon a division meekly expectant of the hour’s worse contingencies.*

I am always struck by the intimate relationship the students had with the college bell. To them, the sound of the college bell is the sound of authority—to disobey its bidding is tantamount to disobeying their superiors. The college bell was controlled by the university administration to direct the students to their next daily event: meals, chapel, classes, curfew. They revel in their precious free moments before their class, and as soon as the bell starts ringing, they slowly make their way to the classrooms. I can easily envision a bunch of impish teenage boys intentionally walking as slowly as possible to the classrooms, only to dart to their seats at the very last moment, right when the last bell stroke decayed. They could have only pulled off these shenanigans by knowing very well the timing of the college bell ringing. The closest equivalent to today would be high schoolers dashing to their seats during the class bell. I don’t know of any colleges or universities that still ring bells to direct students to classes and such, only of bells that ring at designated times (on the hour, every 15 minutes, etc.). Do you know of any?

* John Addison Porter, ed. Sketches of Yale Life: Being Selections, Humorous and Descriptive from the College Magazines and Newspapers. Washington, D.C.,: Arlington Publishing Co., 1886.