Whose Fault Was It?

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But back to the crack. Dr. Rosenfield points out that, quite aside from orthography, there were both visible and invisible defects in the bell. Pass and Stow were not skillful enough to produce a bell with a uniformly smooth surface: there are numerous pockmarks and some seams. Moreover, modern metallurgical analysis of a small sample has indicated two defects in the metal itself: it still has too much tin (24 per cent by weight), and it contains many nonmetallic impurities, globs of lead, and small voids. Any one of these irregularities, or a combination of them, could have started the fatal crack under the impact of the bell’s clapper.

On top of this, the Liberty Bell had a rough time during the Revolution: when the British approached Philadelphia in 1777, it was loaded on a wagon and jolted over bad roads to Allentown for safekeeping until 1778. It is said to have been dropped at least once en route, which may have produced an incipient, microscopic crack. Finally, any big bell is subject to metal fatigue—the gradual deterioration of part of the bell under a repeated number of sinkings; and the Liberty Bell’s structural defects may have led to a fatigue crack some time in its first fifty or sixty years of existence. This would not have impaired the tone of the bell until the crack reached a critical size and then fractured rapidly and catastrophically, as apparently it did in 1835. Alternatively, a single overload—an extra-heavy blow from the clapper—could have fractured the bell all at once.

Could the Liberty Bell be melted down and recast so that it could ring again? Certainly, our expert says; and in fact the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, still in business in London, offered to do just that in 1945. The offer was politely turned down by the federal government. The crack, it would seem, has become as sacred as the bell itself, and to remove it would be like subjecting the honorable battle scars of an old soldier to plastic surgery.

—E.M.H.