Where the Sun Rose on American Independence

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Liam Hetherington on November 13, 2011

Philadelphia’s Independence Hall is one of the most important buildings in the history of the United States of America. The nation was shaped by the conversations that went on within its doors between men like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Without those conversations there may not even have been a nation to shape…

The Pennsylvania State House – as it was known at the time – was the setting for the meetings of the Second Continental Congress. The Congress was a selection of representatives from the separate colonies of British North America who were opposed to the calibre of rule they were subject to from London. Various British administrations struggled to wring any kind of profit out of their American involvement, and their stop-gap ‘solutions’ were inevitably handed down without any consultation with the colonists themselves. The Continental Congresses were meetings of influential colonial landowners, merchants and lawyers to devise their response to increasingly ham-fisted attempts to govern from afar. Blood had already been spilt in Massachusetts by the time the Second Congress convened in May 1775. In June the delegates approved that a Continental Army be formed under the command of George Washington to co-ordinate defence against the British forces that were arriving to quash the rebellion. And the following year the delegates in this building took the final, logical step – they approved a resolution to break ties with London. On 4th July 1776 Congress approved the Declaration of Independence.

An independent America came into being – but not in the way we know it today. The early years of independence saw only a loose confederation of states with little or no central control. And so in 1786 another group of men met in the exact same Assembly Hall as the Constitutional Convention. The American constitution they produced, while occasionally amended, holds true today with a President, bicameral legislature, Supreme Court and a new capital. As a marker of the importance of the meetings that took place in this building it was renamed ‘Independence Hall’, and it now forms the heart of the Independence National Historical Park.

Independence Hall sits on Chestnut Street and is a quite lovely-looking Georgian building. The red brickwork and white-painted woodwork create a harmoniously simple effect. The main building is joined by arched to two separate wings (one, Old City Hall, was home to the Supreme Court; the other, Congress Hall, to Congress) and is itself topped by a clock tower that was formerly home to the Liberty Bell. The public are free to wander down Chestnut Street and across the grassy Independence Mall in front of the building at any time and it does look particularly attractive when spot-lit at night. Photographers need to take care however as the city authorities have allowed the construction of some distinctly out-of-keeping skyscrapers behind it which have a tendency to ruin shots. Between March and December entry to the complex of the buildings is strictly regulated by timed tickets however. Not an issue – tickets are free. You can pick them up at the Independence Visitor Centre across the Mall at 6th and Market Streets. These will give you a time slot for entry to the complex (beneath the colonnade to the left of the Hall – expect to have your bag searched). Only a certain number of tickets for each slot are given out. We pitched up at the Visitor Centre and got tickets for XX with no trouble. Tickets can also be booked in advance for a $1.50 booking fee at www.recreation.gov.

The ticket entitles visitors to a National Park Ranger-led tour of the interior of Independence Hall at the time stated. I’ve commented before that I’m a little in awe of the Rangers and I would really recommend the tour to provide some context about why the Hall is so important to American history. The guide’s commentary was pitched at a level suitable for children - and also foreigners for whom phrases like ‘Second Continental Congress’ and ‘Articles of Confederation’ and names like John Adams and Alexander Hamilton are not instantly recognisable. Rather endearingly, whenever his patter led him on to being in anyway critical of the British authorities I noticed that he gave a small concerned glance at Rebecca and I as if he was worried he might have offended us. Don’t worry about it – we’re over it.

The tour starts with a bit of historical scene-setting before proceeding into the court room. The highlight is the Assembly Room where both independence and the constitution were debated. The desks are covered with moss-green cloths and scattered with props – paper and pens, reference books, spectacles and clay pipes. The impression given is that the delegates have just nipped out for dinner. It’s a nice touch and provides a human element. At the far end sits the raised desk used by the president of the sessions (the chair has, as Benjamin Franklin commented after the Constitutional Convention, a rising sun painted on its back). Unfortunately the tour does not go upstairs, but it is a good and informative thirty minutes. Afterwards visitors are free to stay around the complex for as long as they like.
Independence Hall
500 Chestnut St
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania


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