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Gary B. Nash's history of "The Liberty Bell"

Sunday, June 6, 2010; B07

THE LIBERTY BELL

By Gary B. Nash

Yale Univ. 242 pp. $24

It is an unlikely central character for a book: A silent, 250-year-old bell. Yet in "The Liberty Bell," a biography of our nation's "nearly sacred totem," Gary B. Nash provides a stirring historical account of the icon that is America's "Rosetta Stone or . . . Holy Grail."

Nash describes the bell's journey in 1752 from England to Philadelphia and its centuries-long ascension to fame as a harbinger of freedom. The bell gets its name from its inscription, which comes from Leviticus: "Proclaim Liberty Thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants Thereof." Originally cast by the venerable Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the bell was to be placed in a tower above the State House in Philadelphia. But it broke upon arrival. Local artisans recast it, and in August 1753 the bell tolled for the first time to summon members of the legislature.

Nash addresses myths surrounding the bell, including that it pealed after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 (false), that it was nearly scrapped for junk (true), and that it cracked in 1835 when it rang out to announce the death of Chief Justice John Marshall (false -- Nash asserts it more likely cracked in 1843, when it rang for the anniversary of Washington's birthday that year).

Nash spares no detail, including fascinating anecdotes (both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. have stood in its presence) and bizarre asides (a best-selling T-shirt in the City of Brotherly Love reads, "I came to Philly for the crack"). Nash is a UCLA history professor, and the book reads like an archaic college lecture, but his subject is surprisingly interesting and well deserving of the attention.

-- T. Rees Shapiro

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