Friday, August 8, 2008

Andrew McNair - Congressional Doorkeeper

Information about Andrew McNair, the doorkeeper for the First and Second Continental Congress, is sketchy. As the doorkeeper, he would have also had custodial duties, and appears to have been the official bell ringer for the Liberty Bell.

He was probably a Scotch or Scotch-Irish Presbyterian. He lived in Pennsylvania for a long time, but whether he was from some other location before that, we don’t know. We do know that he was married in Pennsylvania in November 1746, and that at least from 1769 to his death in what appears to be early 1777, he lived in the South Ward of Philadelphia and was a property owner at the time of his death. There are no records to indicate when he died or where he is buried. He was also a Freemason.

McNair’s was the official bell ringer of the Liberty Bell for 18 years, from October 16, 1758 until his death in February 1777. The Liberty Bell was rung for important events, such as calling the Pennsylvania Assembly into session, for various protests of British taxes, for the closure of Boston Harbor by the British, and to announce the news of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The Bell was also rung on July 8, 1776 to announce the public reading of the Declaration of Independence to the citizens of Philadelphia. The records appear to indicate, however, that McNair may not have been the bell ringer on July 8, 1776. The Liberty Bell received its famous crack in 1835 while tolling to announce the death of Chief Justice John Marshall.

Records also describe McNair as the doorkeeper for the Pennsylvania Assembly, a position requiring annual election and appointment by the Assembly. It appears that the doorkeeper and bell ringer duties went together. During the period from 1753 through 1780, McNair was one of only five individuals who held the position of doorkeeper, and he clearly held it for the longest time – 18 years. Generally, the person in this position for the Pennsylvania Assembly would also serve in a similar capacity for the Continental Congress, and thus McNair found himself serving the First and Second Continental Congress. He was appointed as doorkeeper for the First Continental Congress on September 22, 1775. Not only was he the doorkeeper and bell ringer, records indicate that he also was responsible for “cleaning house,” which is perhaps where the musical “1776” gets his title as “Congressional Custodian.” For the 146 days from April 30, 1776 through November 1, 1776, he was paid $118 for his services.

The duties of the doorkeeper appear to have been fairly broad and McNair, as the doorkeeper, would have been responsible for the physical management of the facility that Congress met in. The Second Continental Congress met in the Pennsylvania State House Building, which is today known as Independence Hall.

The information above is from a small book entitled Andrew McNair and the Liberty Bell, by Mary D. Alexander (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929).

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