Wednesday 6 November in Philadelphia was a fantastic day on our American expedition. We had set ourselves the tasks of seeing (at least) the Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell , to continue our tour of the birth of the USA. That we were able to do this and so much more made today a gem. After a continental breakfast we headed out for the short 10 minute stroll to the Independence Information and Visitor Centre. The sky was a clear rich blue without a cloud in sight and while there was a slight nip in the air (it is autumn after all) it was lovely taking in the sounds and smells of China town as we made our way towards the old town.
Having acquired our tickets for the tour of the Independence Hall we joined the waiting group of like-wise eager beavers and were ushered into a small anti-chamber off the main hall to meet our tour guide. Now those reading this who have seen the show The West Wing will know the character C J Craig, played by Allison Janney. Our guide was tall and lanky and had the same sparkling dry wit as Craig and was a delightful and informative host as we made our way into this sacred chamber. We saw the actual place where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, edited and proclaimed. Interesting to note that while everyone thinks the 4th July is the day when the declaration was made – it was actually made on the 2nd July. The Americans celebrate the 4th because it took two extra days for edits to be made and for the document to be printed and hence it has 4th July 1776 on the document.
The hall was also the place where the now 13 independent former colonies of England, having won the war by 1783, sent representatives to thrash out the form of government by which they now would live. The problem was that while they had been united against a common enemy – now that the yoke of oppression had been lifted – former jealousies and rivalries once more surfaced. That a constitution was finally agreed was called by both Madison and Washington the ‘miracle of Philadelphia!’ The marvelous compromise which saw a small colony like Rhode Island agree with a large colony like Virginia was the bicameral Congress system – where all states were equal in the number of representatives in the Upper House – the Senate – pleasing the smallest of the states – and the number of representatives in the lower House – the House of Representatives – was based on population – hence pleasing the more populous states. We were also reminded by our guide that Benjamin Franklin, then 81 and only three years from his death in 1790, played a key role in persuading and cajoling by his wisdom and charm, the most objectionable players in the room. We were to be reminded all day that Franklin was truly the outstanding persona in North America, if not the world, in the 18th century.
Next stop was the beautiful two story building used as the Congress House – Philadelphia was the Capital of the fledgling country for ten years from 1790 to 1800 when the capital was then moved to the new city of Washington, DC. And so the Congress – both the House of Representatives and the Senate met in the Congress building – next to the Independence Hall. We were reminded that George Washington was sworn in for his second term of office (from 1792 to 1796) in this building as was John Adams in 1796.
After these two tours – we went to see the bell. Original cast in 1751 for the bell tower of the Independence Hall – it was too brittle and slightly cracked on its first peel. Recast – it was rung on 8 July 1776 at a reading of the Declaration of Independence. It is said to have cracked again in 1824, during the visit of the Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. The repairs do not seem to have worked well because when it was asked by the Mayor to be rung to celebrate Washington’s birthday in 1846 – the repairs gave way and the crack widened and lengthened so as to be unusable and what we see today. The bell has become a great symbol for freedom and liberty – it was first called the Liberty Bell in 1837 by anti-slavery abolitionists and the new name stuck. It has been used by groups claiming liberty in America ever since – women demanding equal rights at the turn of the century; the black rights movement in the 60s and the gay pride movement in the 80s. I was interested in the biblical quote inscribed on the bell from Leviticus 25.10: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
All this only brings us to morning tea! We wander over to check out the Benjamin Franklin museum – built near the spot where his house and printing firm were located from the middle of the 18th century. Fantastic tribute to a wonderful man. Franklin was an American polymath and one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. Franklin was a leading writer, printer, political philosopher, politician, Freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat. I’ve read his autobiography before and his works on the virtues and time management and the bettering of oneself, but to see it all under one roof was inspiring. Most people know of him through kites and lighting but if they leave it at that they would be in my humble opinion missing out on the deep wisdom of a true genius. Here is just a taste of the man: It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it; Well done is better than well said; and my personal favourite (which could I imagine be leveled at several world leaders of the moment) – We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid.
Lunch was had in the Bourse Food Hall. A building circa 1895 – and one of the first to use steel in its frame. The name Bourse means a place of exchange and this building was the first commodities exchange house in the USA. It now acts as a giant food hall on the lower level and various office space above, including I found out, the Mexican consulate.
In the afternoon we took the opportunity to go on the Big Bus – the hop-on/hop-off bus and have a tour up top resting our feet. Space really doesn’t permit me to mention all the wonderful buildings we saw except to mention the town hall – which extends 167 m up including the 11 m statue of the founder of the city, William Penn atop the building spire. This building took 30 years to build from 1871 to 1901. It is the largest municipal building in the world with 700 rooms. There was a gentleman’s agreement that no building in the city should exceed the height of the hat on Penn’s statue. This was broken in 1987 by the building of Liberty One which soared up 288 m. For the next thirty years until 2007 no major team of any sport in Philadelphia won its equivalent championship, after the city having enjoyed much success in many sports before 1987. It was called the curse of Billy Penn! It was broken in 2007 by the building of the Comcast building. One bright iron worker fixed a small stature of William Penn to the top of this building to restore the fact that no building was higher than Penn’s hat. From 2007 the city has enjoyed sporting success again in many sports. Believe it or not!