- Historic Sites
A fond, canny, and surprising tour of the town where the Constitution was born
May/June 1987 | Volume 38, Issue 4
This is what visitors to Philadelphia still can see: the most historic square mile in the United States. It includes Independence Hall, Congress Hall, Carpenters’ Hall, Library Hall; the First and Second Banks of the United States; Christ Church, the Philadelphia Exchange, and many other fine structures, most of them completed during the glorious architectural century before 1835. A one-hour walk may encompass most of them; after two hours the eyes will have exhausted the Historic Square Mile. Of course this would mean walking past the buildings, stopping at times on the outside, without stepping into their interiors. This is done by thousands of tourists every day. Yet I think that perhaps the best way to sense the buildings’ presence comes in the evening, even though their doors are closed—and not only because the streets around them are empty of the throngs. There is a silent stateliness about these buildings then. Their red-bricked walls breathe an air of dignity. The sense of the past is, mysteriously, more present when they are alone. This, I think, is not merely the preference of a historian who likes solitude. Philadelphia is not Williamsburg: for the most part these historic buildings are not reconstructions, although their interiors often are. Few people know that even in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall there are only two authentic objects that were there two hundred years ago: an inkstand and George Washington’s high-backed chair. The rest are antique furnishings and fabrics purchased and brought together much later by admiring volunteers and experts of eighteenth-century America.
It is a great and widespread mistake to believe that our ancestors were more history-minded than we are. Historical consciousness, especially in the United States, is a relatively recent phenomenon. Much of the Historic Square Mile had fallen into disrepair for a century and a half. In 1828, for example, the Liberty Bell—before it was badly cracked—had been offered as scrap to a Philadelphia craftsman for four hundred dollars, since the town fathers had chosen to commission the casting of a bigger one. But he decided that drayage, that is, carting it away, would have cost too much.* The only building well taken care of was Carpenters’ Hall, finished in 1773, where the First Continental Congress met, in 1774. (It was leased to various institutions, including the Bank of Pennsylvania; consequently it was there that the first great bank robbery in the United States took place, in 1798.) In 1857 the private association of the Philadelphia Carpenters’ Company restored it (they still own it). The great Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 was America’s first World’s Fair, and it had just about nothing to do with history. The Centennial was dedicated to machinery, not to history. Its buildings were three miles away from the Historic Square Mile, which was visited by relatively few people. As recently as forty years ago Independence Hall was still owned by the city. A row of low, brownish, often dilapidated commercial buildings blocked its prospect, save from the back. It was only in 1951 that the act providing for the construction of Independence National Historical Park, supported by President Truman, was put into practice, with results that have been altogether salutary, though there are exceptions —as, for example, the removal of the Liberty Bell from Independence Hall to a deadening glass pavilion in 1976, or, perhaps, the construction of a replica of the above-mentioned City Tavern in which not one brick is genuine (I have yet to meet a Philadelphian who has set foot in it).
*The strange history of the Liberty Bell deserves a footnote. It was called the New Province Bell when it was first ordered from London. It was called the State House Bell until a century ago. It arrived in 1752. At the first stroke of its large clapper, it cracked. Two Philadelphian craftsmen, Pass and Stow, had to recast it twice. Their misspelling of “Pensylvania” remains cast in eternity. Contrary to accepted opinion, it was rung not on the second or the fourth of July in 1776 but on the eighth. A new crack, which had already appeared, probably widened when the bell was rung on February 23, 1846, to celebrate Washington’s birthday. It has not been tolled since but only tapped, for all kinds of occasions, including the beginning of National Boy Scout Week in 1952. For a long time it did not receive exquisite care. There is a photograph of it being carted to Boston in 1903 for a Bunker Hill Association celebration on an open, unprotected flatcar of the Pennsylvania Railroad; in front of it stands a fat, mustachioed “Keystone cop” holding a frightened baby. In 1976 it was removed from Independence Hall and put into a glass case, like Lenin’s mummy on Red Square in Moscow. Unlike Lenin’s mummy it does not need to be waxed or painted from time to time.
Sometime before the bell was rung in 1846, the material in the crack was filed off. Out of this material some small handbells were cast and given away. One was given to the historical society, and another was given Henry Clay. And one of them was given to an ancestor of my first wife who was a city councilman in the 1830s; I have it now.