(Photo credit: Independence Hall, courtesy gr1fter, Flickr Creative Commons)
Winston Churchill is reputed to have once said that Americans always end up doing the right thing, but only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities. It sounds a bit mean, but it’s really more of a compliment, if a backhanded one. Besides, Churchill was half-American, so he gets some license to provide insight about the country of his mother’s birth. Anyway, I’ve always thought this quote is one of the most astute I’ve heard about the United States, and its veracity is borne out by the building that more than any other encapsulates everything about what this country is about, or at least supposed to be about: Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.
Independence Hall is the key site at Independence National Historical Park, which covers 54 acres of central Philadelphia. It is without doubt the most historically significant building in America, and one of the most important in the world. There’s a reason why Independence Hall is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The building has also found a place in popular culture, having appeared in numerous movies and TV shows. That’s led to some strange encounters between visitors and the rangers who work there. I once saw a woman and her son standing outside Independence Hall staring up at the roof. She’s pointing at the roof, saying to her son, “There it is, big guy!” The son goes, “Wow!” A ranger, seeing the boy’s excitement, approached the pair and said, “Yes, that’s Independence Hall, the real thing. Did you have any questions?” The boy ignored the ranger. The mother lowered her gaze and replied, “No, that’s OK, I’m just showing him that’s where Nicolas Cage pulled open the brick on the chimney that contained Ben Franklin’s bifocals.” A pause. “You know, from the movie, National Treasure.”
These sorts of encounters were common in the late 2000s, though they have started to decline in number as the prominence of National Treasure, a 2003 movie, fades with age. No doubt some other pop culture reference will emerge in the near future that’ll place Independence Hall back on the pop culture map. Fortunately, though, the building is famous enough that it continues to be a major attraction, even without a bump from Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Independence Hall is a little harder to get into these days, thanks to heavy visitation and post-9/11 security concerns. Visitors must pass through a security check at 5th and Chestnut streets to visit the square. Entry to Independence Hall itself is possible only with a ranger-led tour. In the summer these tours take more than 80 visitors through the building every 15 minutes throughout the day, but that still doesn’t satisfy the demand. The park service uses a ticketing system to limit the huge lines that used to form around Independence Square. Visitors wishing to tour the building on the day of their visit have to stop by the visitor center for a timed ticket. These tickets are free, but they often run out at the height of the summer, sometimes before noon. Without a ticket, visitors can’t get into Independence Hall, which often leads to disappointment. Those who manage to clear these hurdles eventually make their way to the waiting line for Independence Hall, outside the building’s East Wing.
The first thing visitors see when they get into the East Wing for the start of their tour is a large painting by Louis S. Glanzman, painted in 1987. It depicts the signing of the U.S. Constitution on September 17, 1787, after a long, hot summer of hammering out the details of that portentous document. The signing was one important event that took place in Independence Hall’s Assembly Room. One of many such events. That room was the site where the Second Continental Congress first met to discuss their grievances with Great Britain, and it remained the principal meeting site for that body for most of the Revolutionary War. It’s where a certain Virginia militia colonel by the name of George Washington was chosen to lead the Continental Army. It’s where the delegates of the Second Continental Congress took the irreversible step of declaring independence from Great Britain. It’s where the Articles of Confederation, America’s first go at drafting a unifying sort-of-constitution, was put into force. And it’s the place where the Constitution—the actual U.S. Constitution, the one we have today, the world’s oldest—was hammered out and signed. Any one of these things would be enough to make this room, and this building, a site of major historical importance. Put all of them together, and you have America’s greatest national treasure, no question. But nothing that happened here happened easily, and it took a long time for the country to get it right.
The Glanzman painting sets the stage for just one part of Independence Hall’s part in America’s story. It depicts most of the Founding Fathers who were in the Assembly Room on the day the Constitution (which now sits in Washington, DC’s National Archives) was actually signed. Washington is depicted standing right at the center, as usual the tallest man in the room. Next to him is the chair he used as president of the convention—a chair that still stands in the Assembly Room today. Standing round him are such luminaries as James Madison, James Wilson, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton. Sitting in front of Washington, cane in hand, is an elderly but still sharp Benjamin Franklin. Missing from the scene are Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, both of whom were in Europe representing the United States at the time of the Constitutional Convention. But rest assured, they were there for the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In fact, Independence Hall’s walls were graced by just about every founder of any note at one time or another.
A quick word on nomenclature. If you’d approached any folks on the streets of Philadelphia in 1776 or 1787 and asked them for directions to Independence Hall, they’d have had no idea what you were talking about. Independence Hall’s original name was the Pennsylvania State House, because once it was completed in 1753 its function was to act as the home for Pennsylvania’s colonial government, consisting of the Governer, the Assembly and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The building didn’t get the appellation Independence Hall until 1824, during the visit by the Marquis de Lafayette.
It’s a genuinely pretty building, though when viewed from the front it’s now dwarfed by the Penn Mutual building, only a block to the south. Constructed in Georgian style, it’s a classically symmetrical design. Its gabled roof, balustraded deck, and brick tower with its large, south-facing Palladian window is pleasing to the eye, as it was intended to be. The same is true of the arcades that connect the main building to the wings with their hipped roofs. (The original arcades and wings were torn down and were reconstructed around the turn of the 20th century; the main building is original.) The brick exterior is set in Flemish bond—that’s where the bricks are alternated between lighter stretchers and darker headers to give that look distinctive to many 18th century buildings in this country.
The Pennsylvania State House was constructed decades before the Revolution, to house all three branches of the colonial government. The Assembly Room was used, naturally enough, by the Pennsylvania Assembly. Across the hall stood the colony’s Supreme Court, while the Governor’s Council—representing the chief executive of the colony—resided upstairs. When members of the First Continental Congress met in Philadelphia in the fall of 1774, to discuss a common response to the rising levels of tension between the colonies and Great Britain, they were not welcome at the State House, which was then Tory-leaning, so they had to convene at nearby Carpenters’ Hall (which is still standing and open to the public today). By May of 1775, sentiments had changed in Philadelphia to the extent that the reconvening Second Continental Congress was made welcome at the State House, which is where it stayed for most of the next eight years. The State House thus became the de facto capital of the United States at its birth. Congress fled Philadelphia twice during this period, however: once in the winter of 1776, under threat of British invasion and again in the fall of the following year, ahead of an actual British occupation of the city. In 1783, a mutiny by nearby Continental Army soldiers, who marched on Philadelphia demanding payment for their services, caused the Confederation Congress to flee that city for the last time. That turned out to be just one more hiccup in the story of America’s two-steps-forward-one-step-back march to independence and viability. But why did the colonists become so set on seeking independence in the first place? This site provides many clues.
Tour groups entering Independence Hall are first taken to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court chamber before crossing the hallway over to the Assembly Room. Some people might pooh-pooh this room as being of lesser importance, but I think it illustrates very nicely a key point that helps visitors really understand the deep source of the estrangement that developed between mother England and her Colonies in the 1760s and 1770s.
The courtroom today has been restored to the way it looked in the years following the Revolution. A painting of the Pennsylvania coat of arms, dating back to 1785, adorns the wall behind the judge’s bench. That painting replaced King George III’s coat of arms, which once symbolized royal authority in this court but was torn down and burned by a group of militiamen on July 8, 1776. However, in almost every other way, the chamber retains elements of the English judicial system. Over to the audience’s left is the witness stand. In front of them is the raised bench, where the bewigged judge or judges sat. The seats below that are where the lawyers sat—separately from the accused, as was the tradition in England. And then there is the iron-railed dock, where the prisoner literally stood trial. To the left of the judge’s bench sat the juries for criminal trials.
In short, the court in 1780s independent America still looked much like the one that represented the system of justice under British rule. And that’s essentially the same system still used in most of America today, albeit with heavy modifications over the years. It includes many common principles of Anglo-American jurisprudence, such as the right of habeas corpus, where prisoners must be taken before the court, allowing the court to determine if the custodian has lawful authority to detain them. Then there is the principle of an accused person having the right to trial by a jury of his or her peers, of being presumed innocent until proved guilty.
All of these principles operated—or were supposed to operate—in America’s courts, even in the colonial period. In a quite intimate way, this courtroom presents clues to both the strong bonds that originally existed between the American colonists and the mother country, and the eventual breakdown of that bond. For colonists in mid-18th century North America, the system of British law and justice was a key part of what made them proud to be British subjects resident in that continent. Their identity to a large extent rested on their confidence that the British empire to which they happily belonged was an empire based on the rule of law and the fair and just application of that law. They believed that, in return for their allegiance to the king, the king’s laws would be applied fairly and equally to secure their rights and liberties, and the king himself would, if required, act as the final defender of those liberties.
In many ways, then, the story of the Revolution is essentially that of a people who increasingly saw these liberties being trampled upon, first by an overreaching British parliament and Ministry, and ultimately by a tyrannical king in a distant country. We can talk about taxation without representation, as evidenced with the Sugar Act, the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, or the Tea Act; we can talk about the degradations felt by colonists over being tried for smuggling by Admiralty courts in distant Halifax, Nova Scotia (especially with the passage of the Sugar Act in 1764); we can talk about their joint outrage when, in 1774, all of Boston and Massachusetts was punished through the Intolerable Acts, without any route for appeal or redress of grievances; we can even go back to the Proclamation of 1763 that restricted settlers moving west of the Appalachians, or the Quebec Act of 1774 that pushed the boundaries of Quebec all the way down to the Ohio River, cutting off the colonists’ route to expand west. But what all of these British parliamentary actions have in common is that they left the colonists with a growing sense that their liberties were being trampled on, that they were being treated not as equals with their British brethren, but as oppressed or even enslaved subjects of Great Britain.
Of course, turning that sense of grievance into a successful rebellion was an incredible undertaking, but it was also fraught with seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Remember Churchill’s quip about how Americans end up doing the right thing—eventually. It highlights many key facets of America’s story, much of which played out in Independence Hall. I’ll talk a bit more about these other facets in a minute, but first I need to say something the United States’ position as the unlikeliest of unlikely countries.
Today, we’re so used to thinking about the road to independence as being preordained and inevitable that we forget just how incredible it was for these folks to pull it off—eventually. Think about it. How unlikely is it that a group of 13 small, disparate colonies, all of whom seemed to have more in common with Great Britain than with each other, would somehow band together to tackle their mother country for a redress of grievances? How unlikely was it that their loyal petitions to parliament and the king would turn into a united rebellion? How unlikely was it that that rebellion held together and succeeded in defeating the world’s greatest military power of the age? And how unlikely was it that that victory was followed by the beginnings of a system of democratic rights and freedoms rather than by a civil war and a dictatorship? When you put it like that, the events that took place in Independence Hall, and in the country as a whole, were truly extraordinary. But there were a lot—and I mean a lot—of mistakes made along the way, and it took eight long years and many very close calls before the United States could call itself truly independent and free from British rule. And even then the country was nowhere near getting it right.
The events that took place in Independence Hall also showed the desperate need for compromise among all the individuals concerned. In 1775 and early 1776, the men who gathered in the Assembly Room were not one monolithic block yearning for independence. In fact, most of them cherished the connection to Britain and wished to see it remain. For much of the first year of the Second Continental Congress’s existence, independence remained the position only of hard-core radical elements, folks such as John Adams and Samuel Adams. These individuals were prescient in recognizing what many of their fellow delegates initially did not: that King George III and his Ministry under Lord North had set themselves the task of crushing, by armed force if necessary, what they saw as a treasonous American rebellion against the British government’s policies in America. But in order to maintain internal unity, the colonists, radicals and moderate alike, had to continue on the path of compromise and conciliation with the mother country. In a sense, they had to get it wrong before they could get it right.
Congress’s desperate search for compromise is seen most clearly in the simultaneous creation in July 1775 of an Olive Branch Petition—a plea to King George III seeking loyal reconciliation with Great Britain and its parliament—and a Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, reaffirming what the colonists saw as their rights to defend themselves from unconstitutional interference in their affairs by the British parliament. Events—most notably King George III’s subsequent rejection of the Olive Branch Petition and his declaration that the colonies were beyond his protection—slowly pushed the colonists toward independence. But even as the radicals took the initiative in the spring of 1776 they moved slowly and deliberately, so as not to alienate the many delegates who continued to believe that peace and reconciliation could still be secured. The result was that when the members of Congress eventually did vote on the matter of independence, on July 2, 1776, they were able to avoid a potentially disastrous split between radicals and moderates. Majorities from every colony voted in favor of the independence motion (except for New York, which abstained, though the empire state affirmed its support for independence later that month). Even individuals who abstained or voted against independence that day, such as Robert Morris and John Dickinson, soon came around.
The events surrounding the creation of the Constitution in 1787 also underlined the need for compromise. Again, a successful outcome for the events that transpired in Independence Hall seemed unlikely at best. Most residents of the so-called “United States” at the time saw their allegiance first and foremost to their individual states, rather than to a union that was increasingly seen as weak and ineffectual. That union, forged during the struggle against the British empire, was unraveling now that victory and peace had been secured. The Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, which had supposedly united the states, was a weak document weak and the Congress created under the Articles was equally weak. The Confederation Congress had no powers of taxation, no ability to regulate foreign trade or even interstate commerce no supreme court to adjudicate the Articles; and no executive branch—or at any rate only a very weak “president,” who under the Articles was appointed for a one-year term and whose job was merely to preside over Congress. Oftentimes the body, sitting in New York, couldn’t even rustle up a quorum to conduct business. It was becoming irrelevant.
Lacking a groundswell of popular opinion demanding a new start, it seemed unlikely that anything would change for the better, and the smart money was on the United States eventually just dissolving, either into its component states or into regional confederations. Yet somehow, a small but influential group of men, headed by James Madison, somehow managed to pull the country back together. The Philadelphia convention, supposedly called to discuss “revisions” to the Articles, instead completely ditched that basic law and replaced it with something entirely new. Against the odds, that Constitution, providing for a much stronger union with a strong central government, somehow garnered the support of most of the attendees—including, crucially, George Washington—and went on to be ratified by all 13 states. It was a long-drawn-out and at times ugly process, but it happened.
Standing in the Assembly Room, it’s hard to imagine how they managed to pull it off. Today the room, like the rest of the building, is air-conditioned and blessedly cool in the sticky heat of a Philadelphia summer. But back in 1787 the building must have been stiflingly hot, especially as all the windows were closed and nailed shut, to prevent inquisitive outsiders overhearing what were in effect top-secret negotiations. The delegates must have been sweltering. It was not a natural setting for inspired debate, let alone compromise.
The negotiations that summer were long and arduous. Large states tended to favor a different kind of union from small states. Southern states were suspicious of any moves to limit or abolish slavery—a movement that was already underway in parts of the North, including Pennsylvania itself. Again, however, as in 1776, compromise ruled the day, and 39 delegates agreed on the final text for a Constitution that could be sent out to the states for ratification. But even then, with the constitution passed, there was still a long way to go before Americans would get it right. The constitution still needed a Bill or Rights. It got one fairly quickly, by 1791. But a much messier compromise, over slavery—which essentially was reinforced by the Constitution—would take a Civil War and three constitutional amendments—the 13th, 14th and 15th—to rectify.
Of course, constitutional developments didn’t stop with the 15th amendment’s expansion of the franchise to African-American men. The battle for individual rights and freedoms has continued ever since, and progress has not always been assured. Another 12 amendments have been added to the Constitution since the 1860s. But in that time, race relations—just to take one prominent example—have taken serious turns for the worse as well as the better. More broadly, we’ve had wars and domestic disasters and all sort of economic and social dislocations. It’s not always clear that the country is doing the right thing to tackle these challenges. I still think Churchill was right, though. Americans do usually end up doing the right thing, though they really do have to exhaust all the other possibilities. Few places illustrate that point better than Independence Hall.