Every year the iconic Liberty Bell draws throngs of people to Philadelphia. Whether they know its history or not, travelers will stand in a monumental line to catch a glimpse of the 2000-pound bronze bell. On a hot August evening, I queued up to see it for myself. Hearing a small child ask her parents, “why is it called the Liberty Bell?”, I listened intently for the answer. What about the bell’s past drew the family there? The father answered candidly, “I don’t know—let’s find out.” As a historian, it was heartening for me to hear that the family anticipated learning the Liberty Bell’s story together.
As an obsessive researcher of the culture and history of each place I visit, I found this style of sight-seeing both foreign and fascinating. What would it be like to just let the sites educate me? I had already been to many Philadelphia attractions (see Independence Hall post), but I was determined to throw caution (and my planning) to the wind and let the city speak to me. I took notes on my findings, especially what surprised me. As I recently reviewed my journal, I realized how grateful I was to that little girl for inspiring me to let each site tell me its story.
Bearing the message “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof,” the cracked bell gleamed in its position of honor. If I looked past the Liberty Bell through the massive windows behind it, I could see Independence Hall. I found this poignant, as in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall another ode to liberty had been debated and signed. Indeed, it was the Liberty Bell that rang out in 1776 from the tower of Independence Hall to call Philadelphians to hear the first public declaration of independence from England.
John Pass and John Stow had cast the bell in 1753. In the 1830s, the bell’s inscription regarding universal liberty connected it to the abolitionist movement. After slavery was abolished, the Liberty Bell helped reunite our fractured nation. With tens of thousands dead and vast areas laid to waste by the Civil War, our country was as cracked as the bell. Journeying around the country to be displayed at fairs, expositions, and other civic events, the Liberty Bell became a way to unite us. It reminded Americans of our collective fight for independence.
Near the Liberty Bell’s home is the foundation for the presidential mansion which housed George Washington from 1790-1797 and John Adams from 1797-1800. Exhibits show how the framework would have looked; they also tell the tale of the enslaved people in Washington’s household. Across the street is Independence Hall Visitor’s Center where you can get your tickets for Independence Hall, see a small museum display, get advice from staff, and purchase souvenirs at the gift shop.
Many historical Philadelphia attractions are all within walking distance. From the Visitor’s Center, one can easily visit Christ Church where several Revolutionary-era heroes worshipped. After seeing the historic church, you can walk a few blocks to see the loveliest street in Philadelphia. I had briefly read about Elfreth’s Alley—a lane that claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited street in the nation—but I didn’t know much, so I was excited to get there and learn. The street itself is filled with the most charming row houses; a tucked-away garden at the end of the alley adds to the ambience. For a small fee, a man gave us a tour of two homes. He talked of life in the 18th century and it was all very interesting.
We were walking towards the garden when he pointed out a plaque on the exterior of the building showing clasped hands. He explained that this was a fire mark. If you had the mark, it symbolized that you had paid insurance (Ben Franklin founded the insurance company, Philadelphia Contributionship, which can still be visited today) and the fire department (Ben had his hand in this, too) would fight potential fires at your home. If you didn’t have it, your house burned. I was quite grateful for the fact that we pay taxes into a system that ensures everyone’s house fires are extinguished and other municipal services, too.
During a leisurely stroll back to the hotel, I stopped at the Christ Church Burial Ground to see Benjamin Franklin’s grave. It was very plain; no ornate tomb or ornamental decorations for Ben, just a plain slab of granite with his name inscribed. There were loads of pennies on top. Why all the pennies? Because of his saying, “a penny saved is a penny earned.” Also, I think it was probably because a bunch of $100 Ben Franklin bills would be too costly.
A short distance from the burial ground is the Free Quaker Meeting House. Pennsylvania had encouraged colonizing by the Society of Friends (aka Quakers). Quakers were pacifists who refused to pay war taxes or fight in wars. This tenet didn’t sit well with some members who thought the American Revolution was important enough to break their religious creed. After joining the war, they were disowned from the group. Thirty to fifty men and women then, including flag-maker Betsy Ross, started their own meeting house. Although these “fighting Quakers” didn’t have a lasting effect on the religion, I thought their story was pretty neat.
I couldn’t leave town without paying homage to one of Philadelphia’s most notable former residents—Benjamin Franklin. I headed over to Franklin Court. Entering off a busy road, I wandered down a cobbled alleyway until it opened onto the courtyard where Franklin’s home once stood. The Franklin Museum was over to the side, but I was more interested in the remnants from the past. Looking down I saw a stone marking the spot of his privy; I couldn’t help thinking, “Benjamin Franklin shat here.”
Walking into the B. Free Franklin Post Office, I purchased a postcard stamped with the “B.Free Franklin” mark from the still-functioning post office. There were copies of the Pennsylvania Gazette and I was reminded that Franklin was a master of many trades: a printer, a statesman, a Postmaster, an inventor, a writer, a publisher, a scientist, and (if rumors are to be believed) quite the Casanova.
Within the complex, I was able to visit a Printing Office and binder where park rangers demonstrated how Franklin would have used various machines. I saw a ranger who had given me an excellent restaurant suggestion the day before at a different site. After following up to see if I enjoyed my meal, he demonstrated how to press ink over the typeset to create prints. I purchased one for a quarter. After looking at office of Franklin’s publisher grandson, I felt I knew ole’ Ben better than before.
There are many wonderful historical places to visit in Philadelphia. The city’s past is prominently displayed throughout the town. I enjoy cities that preserve and venerate their history. Philadelphia—birthplace of the Declaration of Independence, our first governmental structure, and the US Constitution. Philadelphia—where the American flag was adopted, Franklin printed his radical ideas, and Washington and Adams were inaugurated. Philadelphia—where rebellion was debated and later toasted (probably at City Tavern), the First Bank of the US opened, and the US mint coined money. But perhaps most awesomely, Philadelphia—where the Liberty Bell once rang to summon Philadelphians to listen to the first declaration of independence.
Places I didn’t see, but would have liked to: US Mint, National Constitution Center, Philadelphia History Museum, Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, Germantown White House, the Athenaeum of Philadelphia, Betsy Ross House, Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Franklin Institute, the Rodin Museum, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Since a lot of these sites are quite far-flung from the historic center, I would recommend using the Phlash bus system. You can read about my voyage on it here. I found it to be a low-cost, comfortable, and efficient way to see the sights and places to visit in Philadelphia.
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