Happy Fourth of July! As we are celebrating America’s independence today, we thought it would be appropriate to showcase where the birth our independence started: Philadelphia. We took a fantastic vacation to Philly last month and being the history buffs that we are, fully immersed ourselves in early America’s history while there.
The First Continental Congress met from September to October 1774 in Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia in response to the Intolerable Acts. The First Continental Congress met to discuss the colony’s tenuous situation with Great Britain, deliberate about what they should do about their grievances against the country, and voted to set up a trade embargo against them in defiance. This was also a last ditch effort to have King George III listen to the injustices heaped upon them by Parliament, thus they petitioned the king to make amends. I always told my Civics students that this was the last straw after King George III basically ignored everything the First Continental Congress wrote. Any straggling delegates who were still hoping for a British resolution turned to the American side, which sealed the deal for independence. Today, Carpenters’ Hall is part of the Independence National Historical Park and is still owned by the Carpenters’ Company of the City and Country of Philadelphia, the country’s oldest surviving craft guild.
The Second Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House, also known as Independence Hall, after the American Revolution started in order to manage the war effort and to decide once and for all what to do about Great Britain. In order to gain foreign support, the delegates realized that they needed to showcase their desire to become independent, since other countries would not just come to the aid of rebellious colonies, but would probably come to the aid of a new country loaded with rich resources. The Second Continental Congress commissioned Jefferson to write the Declaration.
Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence in a rented room on the southwest corner of Market and 7th Streets. This was not an easy task; he spent about three weeks and shredded many drafts before he completed his final draft in later June 1776. This house is known as the Declaration House, or Graff House, after the homeowner that Jefferson rented the rooms from, Jacob Graff, Jr. Unfortunately for us, the Graff house was undergoing some repairs, so it was temporarily closed.
On July 2, 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted and approved a resolution for independence from Britain at Independence Hall. That evening, the Pennsylvania Evening Post published that “This day the Continental Congress declared the United Colonies Free and Independent States.” Even John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail that “The Second Day of July 1776….will be celebrated, by succeeding generations, as the great anniversary Festival.” (source)
So even though July 2nd seemed to be the date the delegates thought future Americans would celebrate, why do we celebrate July 4th? The Second Continental Congress did not adopt the Declaration of Independence until the fourth. Major edits and refinements took place between Jefferson’s first draft that he left the Graff house with on July 2nd and the draft that the Second Continental Congress finally adopted two days later on July 4th. It was the fourth of July when the people of Philadelphia listened in Independence Square and became aware that America had declared its freedom, though it took Great Britain almost two months to learn they had lost their biggest colony. They did not let America go without a fight, as the Revolutionary war lasted until 1783, eight years after the shot heard round the world in Lexington started the war.
Probably the greatest delegate and founding father that graced the streets of Philadelphia was Benjamin Franklin. Though not born in Philadelphia, Franklin lived in Philly from the age of seventeen. Everywhere you look, streets, buildings, courts, and parks that are either named for or owned by Franklin. He was much more than a founding father of our country, for he printed, invented, and authored among other professions. His magnificent three story house no longer stands, but a metal structure of where it was located and how big is was is situated in Franklin Court. There are portals to see down below the ground and glimpse fragments of the original foundation and, more fascinating, where his toilets were located.
Next to Franklin Court is the entrance to an underground museum, all dedicated to Franklin’s life and legacy. The Benjamin Franklin Museum not only includes personal artifacts and replicas of artifacts, but videos, interactive displays, and games. One of my favorite pieces was seeing a Franklin era sedan chair. Franklin was the oldest member of the Constitutional Convention and was often transported in a sedan chair when his pain made it too unbearable to walk. Because it was early June when we went, the Northeast states were still in school, and many class field trips happened while we were exploring Philly. However, one of the things that struck me was how genuinely enthused the children were. At the Franklin museum, high school students were sincerely interested in the educational, interactive displays and games. For example, where you matched the first part of a Ben Franklin quote with the second half, a jubilant “HUZZAH!” sounded. One inspired teen was enthralled, gushing to her friends, “Look at the quote! ‘Three May Keep a Secret if Two are Dead.’ Do you get it? Ben Franklin was saying people are shady! They can’t keep secrets!” Any museum that can muster that level of enthusiasm in a teen is a great museum in my book.
Another thing that the Second Continental Congress declared was that Benjamin Franklin would become the First Postmaster General in America (a job he held under Britain’s rule as well). The B. Free Franklin Post Office and Museum is still in operation today. You can go upstairs and check out the small but informative museum of the post office’s history or even get your mail stamped with a special Franklin cancellation. Naturally, we sent ourselves some post cards so that we could own a little piece of post office history.
Next to the post office is Franklin’s Printing Office and Bindery, a recreation where Franklin ran the Pennsylvania Gazette and the site where his grandson Benjamin Franklin Bache ran his newspaper, the Aurora. The print shop not only shows the layout of how Franklin had his shop, but they do demonstrations as well. Watching them daub the ink onto the printing press with giant leather daubers and then hand pressing onto the paper before having the newly inked paper dry on cords from the ceiling was impressive. I took the below video if you want to see how it is done yourself. Of course, I had to buy a print pressed on that very printer.
America’s first government after we won the Revolutionary War, the Articles of Confederation, had an extremely weak national government; thus, the delegates decided to hold another convention to address the problems with the Articles. This was the Constitutional Convention and it was held in Independence Hall. The Articles were beyond fixing and instead the delegates created a new Constitution, our U.S. Constitution, which still runs our federal government today.
We went into Independence Hall after 5 p.m., when you do not need a ticket to enter during the summer hours. Tickets are free, but they are distributed in the morning on a first come first serve basis at the Independence Visitor Center. A park ranger gave a great little tour of the Courtroom of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where some Pennsylvanians stormed in after American announced its independence and tore town King Georges III’s coat of arms, and the Assembly Room. The Assembly Room is not only where the Second Continental Congress approved the Declaration of Independence, but also where the U.S. Constitution was signed. The park ranger showed us where various members of the delegation sat, including Ben Franklin, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. The rising sun chair that Washington sat in still sat at the head of the room (I think it was the actual one and not a replica.) Being in this room was a bucket list item for a teacher of Civics like myself, because this is where our government formed, where our founding fathers congregated, and where the basis of my class started.
The Old City Hall is on the side of Independence Hall. This was where the first U.S. Supreme Court met, from 1791 until 1800.
Elfreth’s Alley is America’s oldest residential street and a National Historic Landmark. The houses date back to the 1700s and it is named after Jeremiah Elfreth, an 18th century resident. There is an Elfreth’s Alley Museum, which we did not visit but hopefully will on a future trip. Residents still live there today, which made for an odd juxtaposition of historic architecture with modern garbage bins outside. In one window, an obviously school aged child had written and drawn a brief history of Elfeth’s Alley, maybe for a school project, and I could not help but think how surreal it would be to write a history paper about the very place you live.
One of the enduring symbols of American independence is the Liberty Bell. I saw the Liberty Bell once before on a very brief layover trip to Philadelphia before I caught a plane. Located at Liberty Bell Center, this cracked bell was recast from the original London bell that cracked on its first ring. The current crack probably occurred sometime in the 1840s after being in use at Independence Hall for about ninety years and was widened in order to try and fix it. It obviously did not work and was put out of commission as a working bell. In the Liberty Bell Center, there are exhibits lining the walls showcasing many events that the Liberty Bell has been a part of, including abolitionists and war protests and a video presentation. Behind the bell is a glass view of Independence Hall, which makes for a beautiful resting place for this majestic symbol.
Benjamin Franklin is buried at Christ Church with his wife Deborah and next to his daughter and son-in-law, Sarah and Richard Bache. We arrived too late to enter the burial grounds, but luckily, Franklin’s grave is right along the fence. Pennies were strewn about his grave, not only to bring supposed good luck to the thrower, but as homage to Poor Richard and his “penny saved is a penny earned.” The graveyard was gorgeous and is on our list for our next visit to Philadelphia, so we can see graves of other signers of the Declaration of Independence also buried there.
There were a few non-colonial places we visited in Philadelphia. One was the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Though it was closed on the inside the day we went, we mainly wanted to see the so-called Rocky steps where Rocky trains and Kurt naturally had to recreate the scene as I hummed out the theme song. The Rocky statue at the museum was created for Rocky III and despite the peddlers surrounding it, trying to sell handmade Rocky merch, it was a fun place for a photo-op.
Unfortunately, John F. Kennedy Plaza, better known as LOVE Park, was under repair, so the LOVE sculpture was in Dilworth Park. An incredibly nice lady on her cellphone suddenly stopped while we were standing by it, asked if we wanted our picture taken together, took our picture, then went right back to her cellphone conversation. Talk about the City of Brotherly Love!
One of our favorite places was the Reading Market Terminal. We did not go there the first day and when we stumbled upon it the second day of our vacation, we were blown away by the shear size and variety. Every place we ate was delicious and I wanted to eat every single meal there to try a different place. Unfortunately, that was not possible because it closed at 6 p.m., but we ate there as many times as we could. We will definitely have many more meals there on our next Philadelphia adventure!
Other things on our list to visit the next time we get to vacation in Philadelphia are the Betsy Ross House, the Graff House, the Philadelphia Mint, the inside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Masonic Temple, the National Constitution Center, Yards Brewing Company, and the Edgar Allan Poe house. Let us know what else there is to do and see for whenever we take another visit to this historic city!