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Bells will be ringing

Bells will be ringing, Annual 2017 Cape Cod Life |

An enthusiastic group of islanders—including Jane Chandler, fourth from right—hold flags and bells in front of The Beach House gift shop. Photo by Mike Crane

Following the Civil War, however, July Fourth celebrations shifted to a tradition that remains customary today: fireworks displays. In his 1966 book, “A Celebration of Bells,” Eric Sloane attributes the change in part to the influx of Chinese immigrants, but also notes that “the country was accustomed to the noise of cannon fire and bombs, and the sound of bells on the Fourth of July became an almost completely forgotten custom.”

One area where the tradition of bell ringing lived on—in tandem with its louder, more visual counterpart—was Martha’s Vineyard. According to an 1880 issue of the Vineyard Gazette, “The village bells were well exercised by the boys in ringing a paean to the ever-welcome ‘Fourth’ with its stores of crackers, spinning wheels, torpedoes, et cetera.” Nevertheless, the practice of bell ringing fell quiet for the better part of the 20th century.

Enter perhaps the most iconic personality of the 1960s: John Fitzgerald Kennedy. On June 26, 1963, he delivered in Germany his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, which illustrated America’s ideals on a global stage. “Freedom has many difficulties, and democracy is not perfect,” he asserted, “but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in.” On the very same day, according to John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum documents, Congress approved Kennedy’s resolution “that the signing of the Declaration of Independence should be observed each year by ringing bells throughout the United States at 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July, or at such other time on that day as may be determined by local authority.” Kennedy himself was able to honor his resolution to “ring freedom bells” only once before he was cut down by Lee Harvey Oswald’s bullet in November 1963.

In 2013, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, groups across the country encouraged citizens to follow the late president’s appeal to ring bells. No Greater Love, self-described as “a non-profit, patriotic, humanitarian organization, which honors our fallen and their grieving families, our troops, and our veterans,” called on Americans to revive the tradition of bell ringing at 2 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Its outreach campaign included an invitation in the syndicated advice column “Dear Abby,” suggesting that, “As we celebrate our freedom, let us also honor the lives of those who sacrificed theirs for our precious liberty.”

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