Independence Hall society commemorates American history with a tolling of the bells

Susan Phillips and other members of the Independence Hall Bell Ringers Society celebrate another successful ringing of the Centennial Bell.
CBS News

(CBS News) PHILADELPHIA - This is the anniversary of the world's oldest written national constitution, the U.S. Constitution.

Signed 225 years ago today in Philadelphia in what was then the Pennsylvania statehouse - now known as Independence Hall - few artifacts of that day that survive including George Washington's chair with its rising sun, his personal copy of the final draft of the Constitution and the silver inkstand used by the signers.

George Washington's copy of Constitution on display at Mount Vernon estate

But something else has survived at the birthplace of the constitution - American patriotism.

Almost every year since she was a child, 68-year-old Susan Phillips has climbed 11 flights of stairs, squeezed her way around the support beams and walked to the top of the bell tower of Independence Hall.

"This is a time when 'We the People' have a chance to be we the people and do something instead of by mechanical means," she said with her fists clenched excitedly.

On special occasions, Phillips gets to ring the successor to the Liberty Bell -- the Centennial Bell -- herself.

Susan Phillips and other members of the Independence Hall Bell Ringers Society celebrate another successful ringing of the Centennial Bell. CBS News

Almost every day the Centennial Bell is rung on the hour by a machine except for one day, typically the Fourth of July, when Phillips brings the ropes and a team of bell tollers rings the bell by hand.

"One, two and then we hit it!" she said.

Phillips is the head bell ringer of the Independence Hall Bell Ringers Society. There are 13 members, in tribute to the 13 colonies. Membership is normally handed down in families or by personal invitation from the society. All of the members call it their connection to history. The bells of Philadelphia, starting with the Liberty Bell, called citizens to hear news of the revolution and then the Declaration of Independence.

"I've loved coming here and being just in this atmosphere," Keith Taylor, the oldest member of the society, said.

The 91-year-old Taylor is a decorated veteran of Iwo Jima. He said the fact that he can "proclaim my patriotism" by ringing the bell makes the activity so special.

Taylor's respect for the bell has been handed down in his family to his grandson Harry and his son-in-law, Rich Ashburn.

"I well up all the time when I ring it," Ashburn said. "I'm proud to do it, and I really enjoy it."

"I think being able to do that, filling (Keith's) shoes is pretty important," Harry added.

"I'd like the idea to go on - that we as moderns can still do something to commemorate the worth of those who went before us," Keith said.

When members of this society ring this bell in the tower above this city, they are reporting back to the Founders across two centuries that the American experiment is still here.

  • Wyatt Andrews

    Wyatt Andrews is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Washington D.C. He is responsible for tracking trends in politics, health care, energy, the environment and foreign affairs.