Tag Archives: Liberty Bell

Remembering History: Liberty Bell and Commodore Perry Goes to Japan

Liberty Bell
Photo: National Park Service
Public Domain

On 8 Jul 1776, the “Liberty Bell” rang out from the tower of the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia to call citizens to hear the reading of the Declaration of Independence. The 2,000-pound copper bell had been originally commissioned to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Pennsylvania constitution in 1751. Due to cracking, it had to be recast twice before being installed in June 1753. The bell was used to summon people for special announcements and occasions.

When the British were approaching Philadelphia in autumn 1777, the bell was removed and hidden in Allentown. After the American War for Independence ended in 1781, the bell was returned where Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital from 1790-1800. The bell was rung annually to celebrate George Washington’s Birthday on 22 February. It was not called “Liberty Bell” until an epic poem written by an abolitionist in an 1839 poem.

Its famous crack was likely caused in 1835 for the funeral of John Marshall, chief justice of the United States Supreme Court. And then got bigger when it was rung for Washington’s Birthday rendering it unusable. Today it is ceremoniously tapped on important events in Independence Hall (formerly the Pennsylvania State House).

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Japan had been closed to most of the world since 1639. The Dutch were allowed to maintain a trading post in Nagasaki and along with the Chinese, were the only ones allowed to have contact and trade with Japan. Foreigners were subject to arrest and execution if they landed on Japanese soil. The Tokugawa Shogunate, which had ruled since the early 1600’s, had closed Japan and it brought an era of peace and stability to the country. However, by the late 19th century, the Tokugawa was showing its age. While the Western world had changed, Japan was still feudal in many ways hindering its development. As other countries began industrializing and some of its people were exposed to its wonders, the time for change was approaching. With a mission to open relations with Japan, Commodore Matthew Perry was sent with a squadron of four vessels with letters from U.S. President Milliard Fillmore arriving on 8 Jul 1853 in Tokyo bay.

Commodore Matthew Perry, circa 1856-1858
Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection (The Met object ID 283184)
Public Domain (Wikimedia Commons)

The arrival of the American ships was a shock to the Japanese. At first, they refused communications and then sent messages to move his ships to Nagasaki. Messages went back and forth between the parties but Perry was firm that he would consult with direct representatives of the Emperor. All gifts and compromises were rejected by Perry and made sure their guard boats were herded away. He performed battle drills daily so that the Japanese could see how well trained his crews were and the weapons they had at their disposal. Finally on 14 July an imperial barge appeared carrying two imperial princes, Ido and Toda. A historic meeting took placed at a special meeting constructed for the event.

The letters from President Fillmore and one from Commodore Perry offered friendship and the advantages of opening up trade with the United States. And that a treaty could be drafted to formalize the agreement. Commodore Perry promised them time to consider the proposals and would return the following spring for an answer. Perry, though was asked to depart right away, would have his forces linger for three days. During this time, they would conduct hydrographic studies and also deliver a subtle message he would go when he decided to go. For the Japanese, it meant their carefully constructed isolation was being challenged. Perry would return, and after the usual delays and threats, the Treaty of Kanagawa (1854) was signed allowing for trade between the two nations and the exchange of ambassadors. The Japanese would send their first diplomats in 1860.

Japan would be changed forever. While stability and prosperity had occurred during the Tokugawa period, the agricultural sector was not producing enough. This resulted in famines and unrest. As more Japanese became exposed to Western culture via contact with the Europeans and Americans, it showed a world outside different from their own in many ways. And if they wanted to build up their country, they would need to learn how to develop themselves to be on par with Western nations. Resentment against imposed treaties with Western nations also fed into the desire to change the status quo as well.  In 1867, the Tokugawa was overthrown, and power restored to the Emperor formalized with the Meji Constitution of 1889. It would remain in effect till 1947.

Sources:

Liberty Bell
History.com
Independence National Historical Park (U.S. National Park Service)

Commodore Perry
History.com
Brief Summary of the Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853 (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Treaty of Kanagawa (Thoughtco.com)