(Photo credit: Second Bank of the United States, courtesy Teamu008 at Flickr Creative Commons)
When I’m not teaching college—or at any rate when I’m not at home for parts of the summer—I work at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia. This is worthy of note, because Philly holds a weird and exceptional place deep in my memory bank.
When I was a kid in Scotland—I reckon it was Primary 4, similar to fourth grade in the U.S., and I would have been maybe nine years old—I remember our teacher telling us about Philadelphia as the birthplace of the American Revolution. I’m pretty sure it was a sketchy outline since the city was, after all, a faraway, foreign place. On the other hand, our little country primary school included a handful of American pupils—children of U.S. Navy personnel serving at the nearby Holy Loch nuclear submarine base in Argyll (long since closed). Anyway, our teacher showed us a large coffee table book with lots of pictures of Philadelphia, including, I’m sure, most of the historical landmarks I’m now very familiar with. Not that I really had any sort of meaningful context in which to put any of this at the time; truth is, in spite of our U.S. Navy connection, America in general and the American Revolution in particular were mostly alien concepts to us. (In fact, British schoolkids learn almost nothing about the American War of Independence; after all, it was one of the very few wars in history that Britain actually lost, so it’s nothing to crow about. You’ll also see no public memorials to that war in the UK—but that’s another story.)
Here’s what I do remember. Our teacher told us that Philadelphia was Latin for “City of Brotherly Love.” I have no idea why this stuck with me, except I recall that the picture in the coffee book that most impressed me was not Independence Hall, with its impressive Georgian facade, but rather a large, imposing white marble structure with lots of columns and pediments, which looked pretty classical (and later would remind me of the Parthenon in Athens, not to mention any number of Greek and Roman structures). I didn’t know it at the time, but I was looking at the Second Bank of the United States. Put that together with the Latin brotherly love thing, and the impression settled on my young brain of a vaguely defined Athenian or Roman paradise in the Americas, a place where men of substance in togas wandered around their city of giant columns, greeting each other with a nod and a friendly wave. I basically superimposed Revolutionary-era Philadelphia onto Classical Rome. There was no sickness, crime or poverty here, only gentility and grace. It was A Good Place.
I know, I know: what utter rubbish. Yet the half-life of that impression held sway in some part of my ill-informed brain for many years, even after my growing general knowledge about American life informed another, slightly less ill-informed part of my brain that it wasn’t quite like that, or in fact anything at all like that. (Apart from anything else, the Second Bank wasn’t completed till 1824, almost a half century after the Declaration of Independence; and togas in Philly have always been, to my knowledge, pretty thin on the ground.) Somewhere along the line it dawned on me that Philly is not, and never has been, a Greco-Roman paradise (though to be fair, neither were Athens or Rome). Philly can be dirty, hot, smelly, and crime-ridden (again, just like Athens or Rome, or any major U.S. conurbation). But the city does have some amazing historic buildings and public spaces, and I eventually found my way into a job where I was tasked with explaining and interpreting and contextualizing these sites to visitors who know almost as little about the place as I did at nine years old. Funny old life. Anyway, I plan to relate a lot more about these spaces and that context—including the Second Bank—in due course.