Independence National Park is located in the heart of Historic Downtown Philadelphia, a colonial oasis inside a bustling modern city. Arguably one of the most significant historic parks in the United States, Independence tells a tale of sacrifice and revolution; the founding of a new nation. It is here where the precedent of democracy was set, the characteristics of government laid out, and the equal rights of all people established. There are a multitude of sites to see at Independence National Park, but for length's sake, this article will focus on the keynote attractions: Independence Square (consisting of Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Old City Hall, and Philosophical Hall), the Liberty Bell, and the President's House Site.
The First and Second Continental Congresses
In 1774, tensions between Great Britain and her colonies reached their breaking point. King George III and Parliament issued countless pieces of legislation that relentlessly taxed and levied the colonies, with the goal of diminishing some of the debt accrued during the French and Indian War. Legislation such as the Stamp Act, the Tea Act, and the Intolerable Acts placed excessive economic restriction on common (and often domestically-produced) goods and were even meant to punish perceived acts of treason--Boston's ports were closed by royal decree in response to the Boston Tea Party. Despite taxation without representation and the ever-growing cry for rebellion, many colonial leaders still believed reconciliation was possible.
The First Continental Congress convened in Carpenter's Hall (a couple blocks away from Independence Hall) from September 5 to October 26, 1774, in response the divisive royal legislation. This was the first convention of its kind where representatives from all the colonies (except Georgia) made a collaborative effort to draft a unified response to the British government. The goals of the Congress were simple: ease the financial burden imposed on the colonies and mend the colonies' relationship with the King. While many participants focused on formulating policies that would pressure Parliament to rescind its tariffs and taxes, others (like John Adams) saw this as an opportunity to break away from tyranny and form an independent nation. Independence, though seemingly justified, was considered a radical, minority view at the time and conservatism ultimately won out. The Congress passed the Continental Association and its Declaration of Resolves, which called for a boycott of British goods and an eventual cease of exports to Britain if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed. They also made plans for a Second Continental Congress to meet if conditions did not improve.
The efforts of the First Continental Congress made little impact in mending the Britain-colonial relationship. In fact, King George escalated Britain's response to colonial insubordination by hiring foreign mercenaries to occupy areas of rebellion. Thousands of British Redcoats were also sent over to aid in the military occupation. Intrusion erupted in violence on April 19, 1775 at the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the first armed conflicts of the Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress met less than a month later on May 10. Independence now seemed like a more realistic and plausible solution, but some delegates still believed reconciliation was possible. John Dickinson (PA) drafted the Olive Branch Petition later that June, a last-ditch effort to prevent a full-scale war, proclaiming the colonies' allegiance to the Crown. The manuscript was delivered to London on July 8, but no response from the King was ever received.
The lack of response indicated to the congressional delegates that neither the King nor Parliament took colonial convictions seriously. Independence was now imminent, according to the representatives; however, the Continental Congress didn't have the authority to declare independence. The delegates of the Continental Congress essentially represented thirteen different government entities. The state/colonial governments were the ones who could provide the necessary tools, money, and troops to support the war effort, and each state legislature had to approve the act of sedition first before their representatives could officially support it.
On June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee (VA) presented formal legislation before congress--known today as the Lee Resolution--which declared colonial independence from Britain and the confederation of states. While congress fully supported the proposal, voting on the Resolution was postponed for three weeks until a committee could prepare a document outlining and explaining cause for independence.
The Declaration of Independence
“This day the Congress has passed the most important Resolution that ever was taken in America”— John Adams.
On June 11, 1776, Congress appointed a five-man committee to construct the draft for The Declaration of Independence. This committee included John Adams (MA), Roger Sherman (CT), Ben Franklin (PA), Robert Livingston (NY), and Thomas Jefferson (VA). While the Declaration's composition was a team effort, Jefferson is credited as the document's main author and contributor. Jefferson was heavily influenced by the works of John Locke and Thomas Paine, political theorists who presented ideas on democracy, the function of government, and natural rights of the governed. Many of these ideals were expressed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights--a document written earlier that year by George Mason for the Virginia legislature--which also influenced Jefferson's writing.
The Declaration was entered into Congress on June 28. After further editing, the document was formally presented to the Committee of the Whole on July 1. It passed 9-2, with Pennsylvania and South Carolina the noes, Delaware a split decision, and New York abstaining. The following day, twelve votes affirmed independence (New York still abstained). On July 4, Congress formally announced its decision of independence and sent the Declaration to be printed for publication. It was officially signed by all fifty-six delegates on August 2, 1776, accentuated by John Hancock's large, flamboyant signature in the middle of the page.
The Declaration of Independence brought to light the injustices the British government exploited over the colonies and how they infringed on the innate rights of men. The Preamble of the Declaration famously identifies these rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration goes on to mention the grievances against the King in its Indictment and claims how each of these infractions violate basic rights and liberties endowed to the people, providing just cause for independence. In addition, the “Great Essentials” of government were outlined: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and institute a new Government…” The functions of government expressed in the Great Essentials are best summarized in the words of Abraham Lincoln, that government is an entity made "of the people, by the people, for the people."
The Articles of Confederation
As part of the Lee Resolution, The Articles of Confederation were drawn up to establish the new government of the United States of America. Elbridge Gerry (MA) drafted the Articles on July 22, 1776. Due to the turmoil of the Revolution, the states weren't able to review the legislation until November 1777 and it wasn't unanimously ratified until March 1, 1781 (Maryland was the lone holdout from February 1779 to February 1781). The Articles initially instituted a war-time confederation among the free and independent states, consolidated by a weak, central governing body and answered the basic questions of who would govern, where the power was located, and how power would be regulated. Following the Revolutionary War, it became America's first de facto system of government.
Americans feared that having a strong, central government would result in more abuses of power. Under the Articles, a weak, central government was put in place among powerful state governments. A single, unicameral body--consisting of one delegate from each state--was instituted in lieu of a chief executive. No national judiciary was established either. The closest thing that came to an executive was the President of the United States in Congress Assembled, the presiding officer of the Confederation Congress who had no real executive authority and acted under the direction of the Congress. From 1781-1788, there were ten "presidents" of the United States, the first being Samuel Huntington, who had been the President of the Second Continental Congress. His term lasted a little over four months.
The Articles of Confederation named the Confederation Congress the main authority when it came to foreign affairs, but granted it little enforceable power other than that. Congress had the authority to regulate and fund the Continental Army, but lacked the power to compel the states to comply requests for funding, material support, or troop mobilization. All the states had their own standing armies (some even navies) and elected to fund their own militias instead of the national military, in case neighboring states decided to invade. Congress also lacked the power to raise funds to pay soldiers' pensions.
The national government was denied the power of taxation and could only request money from states. While Congress could coin money, states could produce their own currency as well, and increased national currency circulation would only cause inflation. In addition to currency, the states had their own trade policies, since Congress could not regulate interstate commerce. Debts piled up and the dollar value depreciated due to unregulated fiscal and trade policies.
Of all its faults, the Articles did allow for the passage of two key pieces of legislation: the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The Land Ordinance established the practices of surveying and land ownership provision in frontier territory beyond the Mississippi. The Northwest Ordinance parceled land in the Ohio River Valley from large-landed states and laid the groundwork for the admission of new states into the union. It also made advances in the abolition of slavery, declaring that any state to arise from the territory would be a free state.
It soon became apparent that the Articles of Confederation made the national government too weak to function. The absence of national enforcement powers put the Union in jeopardy. Recognizing its shortcomings, state delegates decided to organize a national convention in Philadelphia, originally intended just to amend the Articles of Confederation. However, the convention would end up producing one of the most influential documents in world history: The United States Constitution.
The U.S. Constitution and The Constitutional Convention of 1787
The Constitutional Convention (May 14 to September 17, 1787) took on the task of creating a new system of governance in response to the ineffectiveness of the Articles of Confederation. On the day of the Convention, only two states—Virginia and Pennsylvania—were present. On Friday, May 25, eleven days after the anticipated start date, quorum was reached. Representatives from New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and New Jersey were present (delegates from other states would arrive over the course of the Convention). The first order of business was to adopt a plan of secrecy, so that outside influences would be reduced and promote compromise between opposing political viewpoints. Next came the formal proposal of the Virginia Plan, which called for a consolidated union of the states, much different from the autonomous Articles of Confederation, and a bicameral congress with both chambers with elected representatives based on population.
The small states opposed the Virginia Plan, since it favored states with larger populations. William Paterson introduced the New Jersey Plan on June 15, 1787, wherein representation was equal for all states in the legislature (which would be unicameral) and voting power was based on the Three-Fifths Compromise, which established that slaves would account for "three-fifths a freeman" when calculating population. Debate over representation would continue over the course of the next month. On July 16, Connecticut delegates Roger Sherman and Oliver Ellsworth proposed the Great Compromise, which essentially blended the Virginia and New Jersey Plans. It supported a bicameral legislature in which one chamber would be proportioned based on population (the House of Representatives) and the other chamber would allow for equal representation (the Senate). The Great Compromise was adopted by a narrow margin of 5 yes to 4 noes and 1 divided.
On June 21, 1787, the Articles of Confederation were officially abandoned. Now the focus of the Convention shifted to creating a new constitution and structure of government. It was decided that a national government ought to consist of supreme legislative, executive, and judiciary branches. The Legislative Branch would consist of a bicameral House and Senate. A chief executive--a president--would head the Executive Branch and carry out the nation's laws, though some delegates were still apprehensive of having a sole ruler at the helm. Power abuse was a major concern. In response, an elaborate system of checks and balances were put in place, where the power of one branch was checked by the other two.
On August 20, the Necessary and Proper Clause (also known as the Elastic Clause) was approved. This Clause granted Congress the ability to pass all laws, necessary and proper, for carrying out its expressed list of powers. Economic matters, such as the Navigation Regulations and the Slave Trade, were discussed later that week. The Northern states favored central regulation of commerce, since it allowed for even distribution of trade. On the contrary, the Southern states relied more on plantation agriculture than commerce and were against regulation, especially since they knew that would mean the end of the Slave Trade. In an effort to relieve the South's apprehensions, the slave trade was allowed to continue until 1808.
One of the final pieces of legislature approved before ratification was the Full Faith and Credit Clause, which stated that "full faith and credit ought to be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings, of every other state." Basically, this allowed for state licenses and certificates (like marriage licenses) to be valid in all states. This was adopted September 3, 1787. The final vote on the Constitution took place on September 15 and passed unanimously. After four months long months of debate and banter, the Constitution was signed on Monday, September 17, 1787.
The ratification of the states would take place later that year, with Delaware being the first to ratify on December 7, and New Hampshire the ninth on June 21, 1788. The two-thirds majority made the Constitution national law. Ratification led to the development of factions in the political system, which would eventually evolve into political parties, Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Federalists were in support of the Constitution and proponents of a strong, central government. Anti-federalists did not support a stronger central government and believed the power should belong to the states themselves. They feared that a powerful presidency would lead to a monarchy and that central government would be unresponsive to needs of citizens located far away. During the period of ratification, Federalists John Jay, James Madison, and Rufus King (under the pseudonym "Publius") circulated a series of eighty-five essays in New York called The Federalist Papers. The main purpose of these essays was to inform the public about the knew Constitution and explain each facet of the new government in the hopes of promoting ratification. Their efforts worked, and by May 1790, the Constitution was unanimously embraced as the supreme law of the land. However, Anti-Federalists eked in a victory the following year. On December 15, 1791, the Bill of Rights (first ten amendments to the Constitution) were added, ensuring numerous civil liberties to the people.
The U.S. Constitution was written in response to the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation. It established a balance between central government power and individual liberties. The national government was able to levy taxes, raise an army, and enforce its laws, while an elaborate system of checks and balances was put in place to ensure no misuse of power.
Independence Hall (originally known as the Pennsylvania State House) was built between 1732 and 1756 and used by the Pennsylvania state government until 1799. It was designed in a Georgian Style by Andrew Hamilton and Edmund Woodley, commissioned by funds appropriated by the Pennsylvania Colonial Legislature. The main floor of Independence Hall features a large vestibule entrance way, adjoined by the Assembly Room to the left and Supreme Court Room to the right. The Assembly Room is arguably the most important room in American history--it's where the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were signed. Another interesting (and rather gruesome) fact, Abraham Lincoln's body was also laid here for viewing shortly after his assassination in 1865. The Courtroom was the sight of some of the most blatant acts of patriotism in Philadelphia, when militiamen tore down the British Coat of Arms in July 1776. The Long Gallery (located on the 2nd floor) was used as a hospital during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777.
Independence Hall isn’t just famous for domestic affairs. In 1918, members of former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires met at Independence Hall to sign the Declaration of Common Aims. The Declaration was drafted so that people could form autonomous governments out of these broken empires. Representatives of over a dozen nationalities met, signed the document, and posed with the Liberty Bell.
In order to tour Independence Hall, you must obtain a ticket from the Visitor Center located at the end of the Philadelphia Mall. Tickets are FREE...but are given out on a first come-first serve basis, so get there early if you want to go on an early tour! Doors open at 8:00 a.m. and tours embark in front of Independence Hall every half hour.
The tour starts out in the east wing of Independence Hall. About 70-80 people were in the same tour group as I was. We listened to a captivating monologue by one of the park rangers who provided a detailed background to the events of the Revolution and was a bounty of knowledge when it came to the history of Independence Hall itself. We then made our way around the front to the vestibule and entered the Hall. Our guide showed us the Court Room and finished up in the Assembly Room, recapping the historic events that took place here over 200 years ago. The tour itself lasted about a half-hour, but that was plenty of time to look around, take pictures, and take in the significance of the place.
Once the tour was over, I made my way over to the Great Essentials Exhibit, located in the west wing of Independence Hall. This exhibit features some original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States. Also on display is the Syng Inkstand, which was used by members of the Second Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention to sign their respective documents.
Adjacent to Independence Hall is Congress Hall (circa 1787-89), which served as the meeting place for the U.S. Congress from 1790-1800 (during this time, Philadelphia was the temporary capitol). All of Congress’s first acts were passed here--the establishment of a mint and centralized banking system, the Fugitive Slave Act, Alien and Sedition Act, etc. Congress Hall was also the site of Washington’s 2nd Inauguration and John Adams’s first, significant in that it demonstrated a peaceful transfer of power between political leaders.
The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell (originally called the State House Bell) was cast by the Whitechapel Foundry in London, 1752, at the request of Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris. The bell bears the inscription of Leviticus 25:10, which says “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” The bell was hung in the State House Bell Tower later in 1753, and supposedly cracked on its first test ring. The Pennsylvania Assembly hired John Pass and John Stow to repair the bell. They filled in the crack and it rang steadily for the next half century.
In 1777, Patriots saved the bell before the British overran Philadelphia. After the British withdrew from the city in 1778, the bell was promptly returned where it served the people and the State House until 1846 when the crack reappeared. Metal workers widened the crack and used the “stop drilling” method to reestablish the bell’s tone. This proved to be only a temporary fix as the crack widened even further. It was taken out of service for good in 1847 and placed in the Independence Hall Museum in 1852.
The State House Bell wasn't called "The Liberty Bell" until after its retirement in 1847, when it was referenced in George Lippard's Legends of the American Revolution. The book gained national recognition, as did the bell's nickname. Abolitionists adopted the nickname and addressed the Liberty Bell as such, speaking to the ideals of the Revolution--how equal rights were meant for ALL people--applying them to the institution of slavery.
After the Civil War, the bell symbolized reunification and equal rights for minorities and women. The bell was present at Susan B. Anthony’s reading of the “Women’s Declaration of Right and Articles of Impeachment Against the United States” on July 4, 1876. It was used by members of the Civil Rights Movement in 1965 and is the site of the “Let Freedom Ring” celebration on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Today, the Liberty Bell is one of America’s most sacred relics, embodying the sacrifices for liberty and freedom and the ongoing struggles to maintain them.
While the Liberty Bell is one of the most iconic pieces of Americana, I would save this destination until the end of your Philadelphia trip. Reason being is that the line to get into the exhibit usually stretches around the block and takes anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour just to get in...all to spend a couple minutes with a bell. Overrated isn't the best term to describe this attraction--because it is clearly a significant part of American history and a symbol of our core values--but for what it's worth, I'd hold off to see the Liberty Bell until the end.
The American Philosophical Society
In 1743, Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society, an organization dedicated to the studies of philosophy and science. Franklin had a vision of one day creating a network of dedicated scholars and educators across the United States. His dream would soon become a reality. In just six short decades, the APS had over 600 members and frequently met in the Philosophical Hall (c. 1789) adjacent to Independence Hall.
The American Philosophical Society produced a myriad of notable and influential works performed. One of the earliest scientific breakthroughs occurred between 1761 and 1769, when astronomers tracked the planetary movement of Venus. From their observations, mathematicians calculated the distance from the Sun to the Earth with a degree of scientific accuracy (predicted 93,726,900 miles…actually 92,955,807!). In the early 1800s, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were trained in anatomy, astronomy, medicine, and geography by members of the APS shortly before their expedition in Louisiana Territory. The APS also helped fund Arctic explorations by Isaac Israel Hayes and Elisha Kane in the 1850s .
During the mid-to-late 1800s, the APS expanded its curriculum into sociological and anthropological spheres. In the 20th Century, the realm of the American Philosophical Society grew even bigger with the introductory fields of genetics, computer technology, and geospatial/atomic physics. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a member of the APS and the lead scientist who developed the atomic bomb. Other members took to the medical field, such as Baruch Blumberg, who discovered the Hepatitis B virus and developed its vaccine, or Mildred Cohn, who pioneered work for MRI machines. Today, the American Philosophical Society honors and funds distinguished scientists, humanitarians, and researchers across a plethora of fields, more than its name may imply.
If the Liberty Bell is the most "overrated" attraction, then the American Philosophical Society is the most underrated attraction at Independence National Park! The Philosophical Hall houses a small, one-room museum dedicated to the history and chronology of the APS, full of interesting artifacts, biographies, and discoveries made by its members. It shouldn't take you more than 15-20 minutes to look around, but the content of its displays are more than fascinating.
The President’s House Site
Outside the entrance to the Liberty Bell is the former site of the President's Home. The elegant three-story brick mansion was built between 1767 and 1772 under the direction of Mary Lawrence. It was originally a wedding present for Polly and Richard Penn (grandson of William Penn). The couple would only reside in the house for three years before the Revolutionary War broke out. The Penns spent the duration of the war in England and abandoned the property. Vacant, General Sir William Howe used the house as his headquarters during the British occupation of Philadelphia.
After the British fell back to New York in June 1778, the house was made the residence of Benedict Arnold. In 1779, Robert Morris buys the house and refurbishes it to its original state. It’s used as the Presidents House between 1790 and 1800. Presidents Washington and Adams would reside there. After the construction of the White House, the magnificent building was once again left vacant. It changed utility numerous times, from hotel to storefronts, before being demolished once in 1832 and again in the 1950s.
Today, the subterranean ruins of the house can be seen below the memorial site dedicated to the enslaved African Americans who resided here and across the country. The outdoor exhibit renders a heavy, solemn feelings to its visitors. It describes, through provocative artistry and informational plaques, the unfathomable struggles ethnic minorities went through in the Colonial and Antebellum Eras.
In all, it took me an entire day just to explore Independence National Park. There are many other historic and cultural attractions within and surrounding the park, but again, for the sake of length and context, they'll have to wait for another article...stay tuned! My trip to Independence National Park was nothing short of amazing. The park is an incredible testament to our nation's colonial history and the struggles of the Revolution. The significance of Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the like cannot be understated. These are tangible pieces of United States history...National Treasures, if you will. Let freedom ring, and visit Independence National Park today!
For more on Independence National Historic Park, visit the National Park Website!