Posts Tagged ‘us history’

For some reason, growing up we never took family trips to Philadelphia even though it is only a few hours away. Boston, DC, we did, but not Philly. So, this June we finally took a short two-day peek at what Philly has to offer.

I loved the historical city center. I don’t know nearly enough about American history – or, to put it another way, US history isn’t my thing strongly enough – for me to get the most out of all the different plaques and statues of these various colonial/revolutionary era Patriots etc. But it’s still very cool that they’re there. And the architecture is just great. I’ve been away from the East Coast so long, to see that colonial/federal style architecture, all that red brick, is just great.

Independence Hall was a bit of a surprise. Though quite large from the outside (or at least appearing so, since it’s nearly connected with the old City Hall, the philosophy society bldg, etc.), it turns out it’s only two rooms on the inside. A 15 minute tour for which we waited at least half an hour. Still, pretty damn incredible to think about these being the very rooms in which such incredibly historical events took place. Everything is all set up using genuine vintage 18th c furniture (obtained from, I guess, museums, auctions, who knows where, in order to make this work) and the one object actually original to the building – the chair Washington sat in as he presided over the Constitutional Convention.

Independence Hall.

Our National Parks tour guide was unnecessarily blustery, yelling the entire tour at us, truly shouting. But I liked how he emphasized that the building has a history outside of just those particular exceptionally historical days in 1776 & 1787. It was the old State House even long before Pennsylvania was a “state,” back when it was still a colony. One of the two rooms was the main courtroom, and had a large wooden carving of the royal coat of arms hanging over the bench before rowdy revolutionaries tore it down. And he also emphasized that the dates we celebrate and revere so much were really only some of the many dates that things took place on. We celebrate July 4th, but what was the date the Constitutional Convention began? When did it end? When was the Constitution ratified? A decade earlier, on July 2, the Continental Congress met to vote on a resolution declaring independence, and the Declaration was officially read out two days later, though it wouldn’t be signed by all those now-famous figures until Aug 2.

Finally, our guide also spoke of how much disagreement and debate there was amongst the representatives of the colonies. I suppose we all know that, it’s part of the narrative we’re all taught. But rather than solely being representative of a theme of how, out of earnest debate the greatest ideas and best solutions can come forth (or however exactly the standard patriotic narrative might frame that), I was struck by the notion of just how contingent all of history is. People revere the Declaration and Construction as if they were God’s words, as if the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired geniuses, larger than life, who produced such utterly perfect documents. But what we have is only one of myriad versions that might have existed, and if any of those alternative versions had been the final one, we might be sitting here in a slightly different, or very different, United States thinking that /that/ version was so perfect, so ideal. To take just one example our guide mentioned, since I don’t know the texts and debates well enough to get into other ones, a significant number of the colonial representatives said they were hesitant to call King George a “tyrant.” That doesn’t simply mean they were wrong and Revolutionary patriotism or whatever prevailed – it means there were different views on this. And it’s only by chance that we’re sitting here today thinking how brave and how right our Founding Fathers were to go ahead and call him a tyrant, rather than sitting here and saying just as reassuredly, just as comfortably, that our Founding Fathers were so wise, so genteel, and so right in their civility to not go that far even though some blowhards or hotheads among the group wanted to.

Boldly displayed on the front of the National Museum of Jewish History, mere blocks away from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.

Certainly, as elegant as it may be, and as historical and fixed in stone as the language of the Constitution is, it’s got some real problems. We think of these words as excellent just as they are because we’ve had them repeated so many times, they feel like poetry, they feel like Bible verses, they feel like something that was always meant to be and couldn’t possibly be otherwise. But, in truth, they were happenstance. One draft ended up winning out over another. One editor’s phrasing ended up staying while another drafter’s suggestions did not. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”? There’s obviously tons to be said for how language changes over time, and how the need or desire for legal language to be phrased really really precisely in a particular manner is a particular product of the modern age, not to mention the particular political/cultural context of what the Founding Fathers thought about religion, their experiences and their intents…. But look at some of the speeches, letters, and laws regarding religion, written by Washington, Jefferson, and others at that time, and think about what if some of that phrasing we’re in the Constitution. What if, instead of this very general ten-word phrase, we had some other phrasing, that spelled out even more explicitly what the Founders intended regarding the separation of church and state? What if the ideas revealed in these well-known but not that well-known texts were enshrined in the highest most fundamental law of the land?

Right: “Religious Liberty,” a sculpture erected in celebration of the centennial of American independence.

The Founding Fathers were mostly concerned with religious freedom in the sense of not being discriminated against for your beliefs. That people of any various variations of Protestantism (or other religions) should be allowed to believe and worship and practice without persecution. Okay. But, still, Jefferson himself coined the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” and somewhere in their writings I wouldn’t be surprised if there really was some argument, stated more explicitly than just “shall make no law respecting”, that said people should not be made subject to one or another sect’s particular religious beliefs, practices, or laws. It would be hard for people of that day to really separate it entirely and say that God’s law is not man’s law or something like that, but even so, I could believe that Jefferson, Washington, Penn, or someone else would have felt that These United States should not all of them have to be subject to Quaker or Puritan or Methodist law, and that that really was a part of their understanding of religious freedom at the time. If only they’d said it more explicitly in the Constitution.

And of course, don’t even get me started on the Second Amendment. But, the point being, it’s just a document, just a text. Any number of variations of the phrasing might have been, but we just happened by chance to end up with exactly this version. So, let’s not take it as God’s given word.

The interior of Independence Hall.

Another thing which really struck me in visiting Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell is that, especially in our exceptionally polarized current political climate, but also in general, how do National Parks sites like these navigate their political role, welcoming visitors of all stripes and conveying to them lessons or stories or meaning about our nation’s history without coming across as too grossly liberal or conservative?

This of course is a broad issue, and I’ve actually studied it a bit, looking at examples like the Smithsonian, the exhibits at Pearl Harbor, and so forth, as well as thinking about those issues as they pertain to places like the National Museum of Japanese History, and the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. But, all the more so in these times, and at sites as central as these – Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell belong to all Americans, left and right, and I just couldn’t help but wonder what the other tourists around me were thinking about all of this. A block or so away from Independence Hall is a stone with the First Amendment inscribed on it. We happened upon it at exactly the same time as another man, and we got to talking, just for a minute or so, weren’t the founders brilliant, isn’t it amazing how poetic their language was back then… But who knows how this guy was taking the message. Is he a super Patriot , the kind of guy who reveres the founding fathers as near to Gods, who thinks the United States is the one and only greatest gift of God to man on the planet, the singular shining example of freedom in the world? Is he the kind of guy who thinks the First Amendment and religious freedom is all about protecting Christians’ rights to impose their views on marriage, abortion, sexuality, etc etc upon the community & broader society? Or does this stone belong to those of us who think religious freedom also includes freedom from religion, so to speak, that Congress shall make no law imposing the views of any one establishment of religion upon all the rest of us? In a nation where half the people take Independence Hall and all the rest as symbols of exactly the sort of liberty and freedom and liberalism that might ultimately prevail against Trumpism, and the other half take it as symbols of an “America First” sort of patriotism, who’s right? Who gets to claim it and be correct in doing so? It would be easy to just say “both,” but we know that no one is really comfortable with that answer. I wonder what the park rangers, the staff, themselves think.

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