Both the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the United States Constitution (1787) were signed in this attractive Georgian building, constructed between 1732 and 1756 as Pennsylvania's State House. Philadelphia was the intellectual and commercial center of the American Colonies. Its central geographic location and traditions of tolerance and diversity played a major role in this status and are documented in an exhibition within the nearby Second Bank of the United States.
Philadelphia was therefore the logical choice as the rebellious colonies’ de facto capital. The first so-called "Continental Congress," at which representatives from the 13 colonies met to formulate their opposition to the tax policies of British King George III, met in 1774 at nearby Carpenter's Hall. The representatives subsequently moved to the larger State House, meeting there for the full duration (1775-1783) of the Revolutionary War, with the exception of the winter of 1777-1778, when Philadelphia was under British occupation.
Consequently, in a city that seems to have witnessed more American historical firsts than any other, this building was party to the greatest number of all. In addition to playing host to the two most famous document signings in American history, it was also here that George Washington was appointed Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in 1775, the design for the American flag was adopted in 1777, and the Articles of Confederation were ratified in 1781. It subsequently served as the new republic’s temporary capital between 1790 and 1800 (when Washington, D.C., was completed).
The excellent, free guided tour explains this history, as well as providing information on the extremely attractive and well-furnished building itself. Work to return it to its original state began in 1876, when the pleasant (and little-visited) parkland nearby was also laid out. The sumptuous restoration was quite faithful to Philadelphians’ original intentions. They hoped to make the city America's permanent capital by making the government's stay as pleasant as possible.
Their worst fears were realized when the translation of the capital to Washington, D.C., led, in short order, to the loss of Philadelphia’s role as the country’s most important city, which it has never regained. Thus, both Independence Hall and the National Historic Park as a whole recall Philadelphia’s period of preeminence, and the sense of history in the air is quite unlike any other place in the city, or country for that matter.
Admission is free but requires planning. You should first proceed to Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Chestnut Streets, where you pick up a timed ticket that enables you to see the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall in that order. You are assigned a time for your tour and instructed to clear security at the Liberty Bell's pavilion an hour earlier. Tickets typically run out by noon in summer, so arrive early! The National Park Service’s exhaustive website offers a wealth of information.