Most Americans are probably familiar with famous quotations that have helped to define the American way of life, even if they don’t know where the quotes came from.
They remember phrases like “all men are created equal,” “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” “we the people of the United States” and “to form a more perfect union,” phrases authored by Thomas Jefferson and first proclaimed in the Assembly Room of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
But Americans don’t know how close they came to reciting passages from another document written by the same “founder” and first read in the same room:
“We beg leave further to assure your Majesty that … our breasts retain too tender a regard for the kingdom from which we derive our origin to request such a reconciliation as might in any manner be inconsistent with her dignity or her welfare.”
Now recognized as? mixed signals from a fledgling government, the Olive Branch Petition was a proclamation of loyalty to King George III and a plea for peace. It was originally authored by firebrand Jefferson and later edited and adopted in Independence Hall by the Second Continental Congress on July 5, 1775. A week earlier Congress had authorized the invasion of British Canada. A day later it issued a declaration explaining to the king why colonists had taken up arms against him.
Independence Hall is commonly recognized as a place of revolutionary zeal where great men worked toward a common goal that literally changed the world. But in the 18th century, Independence Hall was a political sausage-making factory where ideas, loyalties, opportunities and contradictory opinions were mashed into a meatgrinder. What came out — the political structures that now define American freedoms and responsibilities — was hardly inevitable or achieved through some grand agreement.
So last weekend when Albert Grazier of Wilkes-Barre tried to tell his granddaughter, Ella, 7, why Independence Hall was worth visiting, he had trouble explaining it in a way she could understand.
“I thought this would be easier,” he said, on a sidewalk outside. “You could say it’s important because it’s where Americans proclaimed their freedom, but it’s also where British subjects stood up to defend their king and argued against the Revolutionary War.”
Ella looked confused.
“At her age, I guess it’s best to just say the building was an important place where people met to form the United States,” Mr. Grasier said.
Today, Independence Hall is the centerpiece of Independence National Historical Park, 1-square mile of American history administered by the National Park Service and included on the United Nations’ list of World Heritage Sites. With exteriors restored to resemble, if not replicate, their 18th century roots, the urban park is a cluster of historically significant landmarks well worth a stroll through its streets whether or not you can recite patriotic passages.
All Independence National Historical Park sites are free, although a few are open by appointment only. Here’s a look at a few.
520 Chestnut St.
With all its nation-building heritage, it’s often forgotten that the structure was built to house the province of Pennsylvania’s legislature and was called the Pennsylvania State House, serving all branches of state government until 1799. Following heated arguments about the building’s design, the red-brick Georgian edifice was constructed piecemeal from 1732 to 1751 as funding became available. It is symmetrical and proportional in the common style of the day. Its distinctive clock was added to the steeple in 1753.
Children are taught that in the Hall’s Assembly Room, the Continental Congress declared independence from Britain and adopted the U.S. Constitution. But that’s not the whole story.
Independence National Historical Park
The park includes 30 non-contiguous sites spread over 1 mile of Philadelphia. Entry is free to all sites, but each has its own seasonal admission hours and some are open for tour groups only or by appointment. Get details on all of the park sites at the Independence Visitor Center.
41 N. 6th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106 (6th and Market streets)
- Driving time from Pittsburgh: 5 hours
- Special tips: George Washington never had to parallel park on Philadelphia’s busy streets. Finding parking spaces within an easy walk from the National Historical Park area can be tricky. The best parking is in the fully enclosed garage located under the Visitor Center (generally $8 per hour, lower early bird, evening and Friday-Saturday nightlife rates. Most nearby hotels have parking facilities for their guests. Nearby indoor parking garages fill up quickly on high-traffic weekends like this one, but it’s worth checking for openings at 14 6th Street, 41 6th Street and 10 South 8th Street. Rates vary with the season and time. The Philadelphia Parking Authority has a good parking locator website. Get bus schedules at septa.org/schedules/bus. To get the most of everything, consider taking a guided bus or walking tour.
- Fun fact: When Ben Franklin was starting a business as a young man, he hoped to show local merchants that he was strong, ambitious and friendly by pulling an empty cart covered with a blanket up and down Market Street and waving to his neighbors. The ploy worked. By the mid-1700s, Franklin was one of the wealthiest men in the American colonies.
By 1787, delegates from the independent states realized the nation’s first government under the Articles of Confederation lacked the central control needed to conduct the people’s business. They told constituents and newspapers they would meet at Independence Hall for a series of commercial conferences. Instead, delegates took an oath of secrecy, locked the doors, closed the drapes and without public vote abandoned the Articles of Confederation and wrote, debated and adopted the Constitution of the United States, in which the states are subservient to the central control of the federal government.
Liberty Bell Center
Sixth and Market streets
The crack heard ’round the world is actually the result of a botched repair job. The original State House bell, forged in England, cracked on its first ringing. Philadelphia metal workers melted it down and forged the second bell, which rang in the State House steeple until 1846. It’s not clear what originally caused the crack, but in trying to fix it workers widened the break that curves upward through the bell’s Old Testament inscription, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Those words inspired abolitionists, who called it the Liberty Bell. A hundred years later, suffragettes and leaders of the civil rights movement embraced the bell and its message.
Sixth and Chestnut streets
The building next door to Independence Hall was the temporary capital of the United States and seat of Congress from 1790 to 1800. Its rather plain main chamber was big enough to accommodate 106 representatives from the first 16 states. Congress Hall was the site where the nation’s first presidents, George Washington and John Adams, were inaugurated and the Bill of Rights was ratified.
New Hall Military Museum
320 Chestnut St.
In the building that housed the U.S. War Department during the 1790s, exhibits now spotlight the history of the young nation’s Continental Army, Navy and Marines. Visitors explore a diorama and a memorial to Marine Corps veterans who were killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
322 Market St.
After a half hour of exploration, Ella Grazier endorsed the exhibits of Franklin Court as “the funnest part of this whole thing.”
The complex, which opened in 1976, is located at the site of Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and where he lived from 1763 until his death in 1790. The original building was demolished by the city in 1812. Following several architectural excavations in the 1900s, the National Park Service recreated parts of the complex, painted the floor to show where walls doorways once stood and erected “ghost structures,” white wooden support beams depicting the parameters of the original building’s upper floors.
Independence Visitor Center
Sixth and Market streets
George Washington never slept here, but it would be wise to make the 50,00-square-foot Visitor Center your first stop when exploring the diverse sites of Independence National Historical Park. Unless you have a friend who can show you around, maps,guides or other resources are necessary to navigate the park’s diverse locations. Several free films and interactive exhibits can help you to get your historical bearings.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org