Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer In Independence Town

By Paul Gerald

JANUARY 11, 1999:  The room itself is dwarfed by its own significance. It’s only 40 feet wide, 40 feet long, and 20 feet high, but within those walls the greatest minds of their time debated and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. From this little room a new country said, “We aren’t colonies; we’re a republic.”

Standing in the main room of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, you can almost sense the excitement of what happened there. A whole new country! A chance to start over and do government the right way! From this room the Continental Congress ran the Revolutionary War, and 20 years later, when a new government had been debated and decided on, Benjamin Franklin walked out this same back door and told a woman that the people have “a Republic, if you can keep it.”

All this goes on in what looks like an oddity – Independence National Historic Park, a little piece of the national park system, with rangers and everything, in the middle of the nation’s fifth-largest city. The centerpiece is Independence Hall, which was built in the 1730s to be the Pennsylvania State House; other than the flooring, most of the building is original. The square out back is where the Declaration was first read in public (by a man named Nixon, which I thought ironic).

The whole area is full of landmarks and interesting information. One thing that comes up in the tour of Independence Hall, in fact, is that the famous painting of the signing of the Declaration, the one on the back of the $2 bill, is off in several ways. For one thing, the artist had never seen the room where it happened, and he got it completely wrong. For another, he painted it some 25 years later and had all the people dressed in the latter-day style of clothing.

Right around the corner is the first hospital in America, co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1751. The main building was completed in 1755 and is still in use as a museum. Franklin is buried a couple of blocks away, but he’s all over the city, memorialized in statues and with his name on a long, impressive bridge across the Delaware River to New Jersey.

The Betsy Ross House, where the famous widow sewed the first-ever Stars and Stripes, is just past Franklin’s grave and on the way to the City Tavern. The Tavern was built in 1773, and in fact was the scene of the closing banquet of the Constitutional Convention. The original was torn down in the 1850s, but a new Tavern was built in the 1970s on the same plan and the same site. The staff wears 18th-century garb and serves overpriced, mediocre food on pewter plates; it’s an interesting place to walk around, though, and the hot cider with rum is recommended to fight the wicked Pennsylvania winter.

The Second National Bank building now houses a collection of original paintings of many principal figures of the day. All the founding fathers are there, as are two original portraits of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Most of what remains from their explorations – the original journals, plant and animal samples, Clark’s maps – is in the American Philosophical Society’s archives but isn’t available for public viewing.

Right out in front of Independence Hall, in a pavilion built for the purpose, is the original Liberty Bell. Some interesting facts emerge from the tour there. The famous crack, for example, is actually much larger than it was when formed; what we see now are the drilled-out results of the repair job. The bell hasn’t been rung since 1846, when a second and longer crack formed. It went, ironically, right through the word “Liberty” on the bell, but the bell wasn’t called the Liberty Bell until it became a symbol of the Abolitionist movement in the 1830s.

Our tour guide also pointed out that these cracks formed because the company that made the Liberty Bell never made a bell before or after it, “and it shows – this is a very poorly made bell.”

The Center City area surrounding Independence Park is a great place for walking, as is the whole city of Philadelphia. In the next couple of weeks I’ll fill you in on the rest of the reasons why you should go check out America’s birthplace.

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