We’re in the home stretch of posts about my trip to the Northeast, with two more cities to go. It’s taken me as long to write all this stuff up as it did to see it.
I must’ve picked up a nasty cold somewhere in New York, because by the time we got to Philadelphia the symptoms were on me in full force. We hit the trail anyway. I’m a first-rate wuss, but it takes more than a runny nose and a sore throat to keep me from historical sightseeing.
Something like the sequester, for example.
To explain how the folks in Washington put a real damper on this leg of the trip, I need to back up and give you a brief history of my previous visits to the City of Brotherly Love. I was still in high school the first time I went there, accompanying my mom on a research trip. We were only in town for one day, so there wasn’t much time for sightseeing. I got to pick one destination to visit, and it came down to either Independence Hall or the Academy of Natural Sciences.
You’d think this would be a no-brainer for a Rev War buff, but at that time my history buffdom was still in its embryonic stage. Like our tiny mammalian ancestors, it scurried around in the underbrush, unable to compete for resources with the ginormous reptiles who took up all the good habitat space. In this case, the ginormous reptile was a hadrosaur, the first major dinosaur find ever made in the U.S. and one of the star attractions of the Academy of Natural Science’s collections. So I picked the ANS and vowed that if I ever made it back to Philly I’d see Independence National Historical Park.
Many years later, I had to fly up to Philadelphia on a trip for the Lincoln museum. With a couple of hours to myself, I managed to hit Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and the buildings where Congress and the Supreme Court sat. I’d really wanted to see the house where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the New Hall Military Museum, and the gallery of Charles Wilson Peale’s portraits, but there just wasn’t enough time. Once again I left Philadelphia with unfinished business, promising myself that someday I’d be back to fill in the blanks.
So here I was again in 2013, ready to take another crack at seeing everything INHP had to offer. You can imagine my reaction when when we found the Declaration House, the military museum, and the Peale gallery closed. If you’re familiar with that scene in National Lampoon’s Vacation where the Griswolds finally make it to Walley World, and they run giddily up to the entrance only to encounter a statue of Marty Moose with a recorded message announcing that the park is shut down for renovation, well…
…it was sort of like that.
Missing the Peale gallery was just plain bad luck; it’s only open on certain days of the week, and we happened to be there on one of the other ones. But I couldn’t figure out why the Declaration House and the military museum were off limits. The park’s website gave no information. I wondered if the sequester might have had something to do with it, and apparently that was the case.
On the off chance you ever read this, members of Congress and President Obama—thanks for nothing.
Still, an incomplete visit to INHP is better than a full visit to most places. It’s an awesome park. We did manage to see the reconstructed Declaration House from the outside. The original was demolished in 1883.
And Independence Hall makes any trip to INHP well worth it, even if some of the other buildings are closed.
People have been paying their respects here for a long time.
The line to see the Liberty Bell was much longer than on my last visit, wrapping all the way around the outside of the building. I wondered if this was due to the fact that so many of the other buildings were closed. There’s a great exhibit in the building that houses the bell, covering everything from its manufacture to its evolution as a symbol of freedom and protest down to the present day. It’s a fascinating look at the development of historical memory.
I didn’t get to visit Carpenters Hall on my last trip, so I was glad to see it this time. The interior is much smaller than I’d expected.
We also walked through Christ Church Burial Ground. Five signers of the Declaration of Independence are at rest here, including Benjamin Franklin.
One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet. It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800. A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.
It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.
Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there. As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.
There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here. Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.
Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter. By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free. The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges. Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.
Washington never came under legal scrutiny for these shenanigans, but his slaves still proved harder to hold onto in the capital city than he anticipated. As he prepared to leave Philadelphia and return to Virginia, a young woman named Oney Judge (one of Martha Washington’s dower slaves) fled the household. Knowing that escape would be extremely difficult back in the Old Dominion, she used her connections among Philadelphia’s black community to make a bid for freedom and made it to New Hampshire, where she married a sailor and had three children. Washington’s efforts to recover her ended in failure, and she died a free woman—in practice if not by law—in 1848.
It’s one heck of a story, and I’m glad the exhibit is telling it. At the same time, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were juggling two different topics, and not entirely successfully. The origins of the presidency and the role of slavery in the Washington household are both immensely important and very complicated subjects, requiring as much space and ingenuity as possible. The President’s House exhibit conveys the slaves’ story much more effectively than the story of the executive branch’s early development. This is a problem, because there aren’t many historical topics more consequential than the presidencies of Washington and Adams. Every decision, every measure, every bit of protocol established precedents that would shape American government for more than two centuries, and in some cases determined whether the U.S. would maintain its precarious existence or be caught up in the torrent of European war.
I would’ve preferred the exhibit take its time and tell either one of these stories fully, either the bottom-up story of Washington’s slaves or the top-down story of the first two men to take the oath of office. To me, the limited space devoted to the top-down story only called attention to the fact that the coverage was so basic and limited, like an afterthought tacked on because there happened to be room for a few more exhibit panels. It was as if the interpreters were trying to cram in enough to please everybody, with the result that nothing got covered as thoroughly as it should have.
I realize that I’ve devoted more verbiage to my critique of the President’s House exhibit than any other aspect of INHP. I hope this doesn’t give you the impression that my overall assessment of the park is negative. Far from it; the only reason I haven’t discussed the park as a whole in the same detail is because the President’s House exhibit was new to me, and it raises all sorts of interesting questions about how we interpret historic sites. I consider the park as whole to be one of the crown jewels of the entire national park system. I’ve had two guided tours of Independence Hall and the buildings alongside it over the years, and both were among the best historic building tours I’ve ever taken. The rangers here are extraordinarily knowledgeable and engaging, the buildings are beautifully restored and maintained, and in terms of historical significance it might just outrank every other historic site in the country. If you’re making a list of historic places to see in the U.S., this one should be at the very top.