Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
– Benjamin Franklin, writer, philosopher, scientist, politician, patriot, Founding Father, inventor, and publisher
One of the main reasons I wanted our family to visit Philadelphia was to touch and feel our country’s history. We spent every day of the Philly portion of our trip in what is called Philadelphia’s most “historic square mile.” The first recommended stop is the Independence Visitor Center (1 North Independence Mall W, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 800.537.7676), which opened in 2001. This destination is where you purchase tickets to museums, carriage rides, walking tours, and events. Two theaters and exhibits provide more historical context, and the information center, gift shop, bathrooms, cell-phone charging stations, and cafe fulfill the rest of your needs.
Independence Hall and Liberty Bell
Both exhibits are free, but you have to get tickets to get in. Independence Hall (520 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.965.2305), which is across the street from the visitor center, is called the centerpiece of the Independence National Historical Park and the birthplace of the United States. Here is where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution was debated – over which George Washington oversaw – drafted, and signed. A nice stretch of lawn runs the length of the hall to the National Constitution Center, providing a place for people to hang out and protest and to take photos. Construction of the Georgian-style Pennsylvania State House began in 1732, but the building wasn’t completed until 1753. We walked through the hall, learning about the different branches of government (congress was upstairs and the senate was downstairs).
As impressive as Independence Hall was, I thought the Liberty Bell was more meaningful for me, likely because it was right there before my eyes (though we couldn’t touch it, of course) and its symbol of freedom rang across time. I thought I knew the history of the Liberty Bell, but I really didn’t. Our Benjamin Franklin walking tour guide told us that he was giving a tour and happened to be near some German tourists who had exited from a short film about the Liberty Bell. He said he was surprised to see one of the men crying and he later came to the realization that he associated the country’s two dark moments in history – slavery and the Holocaust – and the Liberty Bell, with its crack, was a reminder that we came face to face with that ugly truth and keep the symbol front and center so as never to forget. Indeed, it is called an “international symbol of freedom.” The bell was hung in the State House in 1753 and served as summons for the Pennsylvania Assembly to work. It cracked in 1846. It was in the 1830s, however, that anti-slavery groups named it the Liberty Bell. The exhibit that leads you to the bell chronicles the different stories and times where liberty was fought for, including the issues of slavery, voting, even Apartheid.
President’s House Site
The most interesting thing I learned from the Benjamin Franklin walking tour called “Franklin’s Footsteps” (215.389.8687) was the story of the building of the visitor center. About eight years ago, the site of the first President’s House was discovered when the grounds were being torn up. Further excavation revealed the foundation of the home. But the most astounding discovery was documents and artifacts that exposed the enslavement of at least nine Africans during President Washington’s stay there. At the time, Pennsylvania was a free state and it was decreed that any slave brought into the state had to be freed after the sixth month. Washington skirted the law by sending the slaves back to Mount Vernon and exchanging them for new slaves. An outdoor exhibit features a glassed area exposing the foundation, flat-screen monitors of dramatizations of slaves living at the White House, and detailed timelines and storyboards.
The National Constitution Center
The National Constitution Center (Independence Mall, 525 Arch Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106, 215.409.6600), otherwise known as The Museum of We the People. It is the first and only institution in the country established by Congress (and signed by President Reagan) to “disseminate information about the United States Constitution on a non-partisan basis in order to increase the awareness and understanding of the Constitution among the American people.” The “Freedom Rising” theatrical presentation introduces the birth of the Constitution and precedes the interactive and largest part of the center.
The exhibit, The Story of We the People, is utterly fascinating, if overwhelming. This exhibit surrounds the centralized theater 360 degrees. A future exhibit on President Obama was currently under construction. The interactive stations provided background on issues that led to the Constitutional articles and amendments being drafted. This can easily take up an entire afternoon, if not day. It’s a lot of information to digest, but if you do deep dives on a handful of issues, you begin to appreciate the power of not only the Constitution but the notion of self-government. Again, I must say that I figured this was another museum where we would power through, but I found myself drawn to various stations, learning things about this precious document. I also couldn’t get the tune from Schoolhouse Rock about the Constitution….
“Slavery at Jefferson’s Monticello” is a sobering exhibit (through October 19th) focusing on, as the guide who greeted us said, a part of history that isn’t typically highlighted in a museum. But, he went on, it is an important part of our history that we all need to know – the disturbing paradox of Thomas Jefferson, who espoused liberty but remained a slave owner his entire adult life. This exhibit is a narrative of six slave families who lived at Jefferson’s plantation. Sally Hemings is the most well-known, but we also learned about the Fossett, Granger, Gillette, Hern, and Hubbard families and the stories of how their descendants fought to bring those stories to bear. Nearly 300 artifacts bring to life the world of these six families and their trades.
‘Franklin’s Footsteps’ walking and horse-drawn carriage tours
As I mentioned earlier, we took one of the several walking tours available. Our guide, Clark, was quite the character, and that’s not because he dressed the part. We were reminded of Benjamin Franklin’s greatness pretty much everywhere we turned. We toured the first post office, which he established. And a park dedicated in his name with a bust made of keys that were donated by the children of Philadelphia.
Christ Church and Burial Ground (5th and 6th Arch Streets) is a recommended destination point because it is the final resting place for Benjamin Franklin, five signers of the Declaration of Independence, 10 Philadelphia mayors, early medical pioneers, Revolutionary and Civil War heroes, victims of Yellow Fever, and Christ Church members into modern times. The cemetery was established in 1719 and more than 4,000 people are buried in its two acres. Only 1,300 markers remain, with some marble markers with illegible wording accompanied by plaques with original inscriptions. In 1864, Edward L. Clark, the warden of Christ Church, was thinking of posterity when he compiled a book of the inscriptions. From afar, the thin tablets look like ancient teeth. Because of the rain that fell that one day during our vacation, we had the burial ground almost to ourselves. By the way, grave rubbings are not allowed.
On our carriage ride, we were treated views to Washington’s Square, a six-acre open-space park. Before the Revolution, the park served as a burial ground for the African-American community and after the Revolution, it was the final resting place for victims of Yellow Fever epidemics. A monument to Revolutionary soldiers and sailors was dedicated in the mid-1950s. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier features a bronze statue of Washington and an eternal flame. It is not known whether the soldier was British or Colonial. It’s reported that an unknown number of bodies still remain buried not only in the square but in the area, which makes for interesting findings during construction and maintenance projects!
Our carriage took us by the house in which Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence, which is a very narrow but tall brick structure. Our carriage guide informed us that fees were assessed by how wide your property was – but not how tall. Also, many of the charming colonial homes’ three stories represented the Holy Trinity. Many brick homes boasted window boxes overflowing with flowers and plants, brightly painted doors, basement doors in the front, and metal signs indicating that they were insured for fire damage. William Penn and his surveyor Thomas Holme designed the grid system and strategically placed public squares with wide streets. Penn had witnessed the damages to the London fires and wanted to ensure that Philadelphia, which means in Greek “brotherly love,” did not share a similar fate in case of fire.
Alas, we bypassed going into Betsy Ross’s house. Our guide told us that her son began telling stories about his mother, leading all to hear that she designed the country’s first flag. On the contrary, our guide noted, Betsy Ross sewed the first flag but did not design it. Somehow that was the deciding factor in just taking a photo of her house from the inside, especially when we had to decide what sites we could reasonably see in our time here.
We learned so much I’m sure I’ve not retained as much as I can remember. I leave you with this one funny story that our guide, John, told us. Atop City Hall is an enormous statue of William Penn, whom King George granted 45,000 acres in the New World for 16,000 pounds to retire a debt to his father. Penn didn’t want to name the colony after his father, but King George demanded him of it. At 548 feet, City Hall and statue combined was the tallest habitable building in the world from 1901 to 1908. Penn’s statue alone is 37 feet. A gentlemen’s agreement forbidding the Philadelphia Art Commission from approving any skyscraper to exceed the height of City Hall was defied when One Liberty Place went up in 1987. Up until that time, the City had enjoyed numerous championships by the Phillies, Flyers, and Eagles. However, after the agreement was broken – called the Curse of Billy Penn – all three teams experienced years of failure. In June 2007, a small statue of Penn, along with a miniature American flag and evergreen tree, were placed atop the newly built Comcast building, which then became the tallest building in the City. And in October 2008, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series – many players of whom we saw play just a few evenings before.