ABOVE PHOTO: Independence Hall
By Renée S. Gordon
“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you….” –Audre Lorde
I have a Liberian friend who moved to Philadelphia as a political refugee at 24. He had no friends or family in the city and had no real support system. After hearing his story, I was curious about how he came to select Philadelphia as his new home when he had many choices. He told me that as a child in Liberia he had an American history textbook that referred to the Liberty Bell. He used to look at the photograph and think that Philadelphia must be a wonderful city to have a bell that the people rang to remind them that they were free.
With the innocence that only a child can possess, he conjured up a picture of a city where everyone lived harmoniously, basking in the joy of guaranteed liberty and total civil rights. My friend, not unlike William Penn, believed that Philadelphia was a place where that could happen and from its founding it has been a place where events to bring those ideals to fruition have occurred. Summer is the perfect time for retracing the footsteps of the activists who were in the forefront of revolution, revisiting sites that were integral to those events and remembering that freedom and civil rights must not only be obtained but also maintained.
The Lenni Lenape Indians, the “original people,” part of the larger Delaware Tribe, were living in the area when Captain Samuel Argall discovered the bay in 1610. He named both the river and the natives Delaware after Lord de la Warr, then governor of the colony of Virginia. The Swedes founded a small colony on the Schuylkill River 30 years later, but King Charles II eventually took possession of the region and in 1681 he granted a Royal Land Charter, later known as Pennsylvania, to William Penn as payment for a 16,000 pound debt he owed Penn’s father.
Penn established his colony with an emphasis on religious tolerance and founded Philadelphia as the first pre-colonial city that was begun as a fort. Native Americans were allowed to come and go unhampered and Penn purchased the land from the various tribes. At the time the boundaries were laid out for Philadelphia there were approximately 4,000 Lenape in the Delaware Valley. South and Vine Streets and the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers bordered the “City of Brotherly Love” and because it was a trade center it quickly became the largest city in the colonies and was chartered in 1701.
Slaves are documented as having arrived in the “Birthplace of Liberty” around 1639, 55 years prior to the arrival of the first Quakers. In the late 1690s, the Isabella, the earliest documented slave ship, arrived at the dock bearing 154 enslaved Africans. They were auctioned off on High Street, which is now Market Street.
Ironically, Philadelphia’s history of protest begins with the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, the first protest in the colonies against the slave trade. “Pray, what thing in the world can be done worse towards us, then if men should robb or steal us away, & sell us for slaves to strange Countries, separating housband from their wife and children.” quakerinfo.org/historical/phil_sites
At the time, Germantown was a separate township of more than 7,000-acres. Modern Germantown remains one of Philadelphia’s most historic neighborhoods. It has a number of existing structures that interpret the pre-colonial experience with an emphasis on the American Revolution. The mansions along Germantown Avenue are gems hidden in plain sight. germantownhistory.org
Philadelphians seem to have always been protestors and, as shown, their earliest protests dealt with the issue of enslavement. Ralph Sandiford wrote the world’s first antislavery book, “A Brief Examination of the Practice of the Times,” in 1729. Benjamin Franklin published the work, distributed many copies of the book for free, and continued to do so even after he was warned, pending legal action. medicolegal.tripod.com/sandiford
A year before the publication of Sandiford’s book, Franklin had gone into a partnership in a print shop with Hugh Meredith. He lived and worked on the premises. In 1730, he was elected the official printer for the colony and he would go on to serve the government in various capacities, including Postmaster General of the Colonies, until his death in 1790. After a lifetime of “revolutionary” endeavors that produced some of the world’s greatest political documents, his final public act was to send a document calling for the abolition of slavery to Congress.
During Franklin’s time in France as a congressional envoy, the British ambassador referred to him as a “veteran of mischief.” He arrived in 1776 and worked both overtly and covertly for the American Revolutionary cause. The role of spy has been documented since the 6th-century BC and many scholars have added Franklin to their ranks. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) honored him in 1997 as one of three Founding Fathers of American intelligence.
Franklin’s lifelong revolutionary activities are on display at a series of sites in Franklin Court between 3rd and 4th and Market Streets. A replica of his print shop gives demonstrations of binding and printing techniques of the era and the US Postal Service Museum and Post Office also contain exhibits. The functioning post office is particularly unique because it does not fly the American flag in memory of the fact that it had yet to be created and visitors can have their mail canceled with a postmark that reads “B. Free Franklin.”
Believe it or not, Philadelphia was a hotbed of intelligence operations for both the British, the Molesworth spy ring and the Americans, the Clark spy ring. The members of the Clark ring operated during the British occupation and it was the inspiration for the Culper Ring featured in the AMC’ network show “Turn”.
Major John André and Benedict Arnold are arguably the most infamous spies of the Revolution. During the British occupation of the city André commandeered Franklin’s home. He resided in the 10-room, three story, house for nine months and upon departure took many of Franklin’s possessions with him. Because no pictures exist depicting the exterior of the house, a ghost structure and underground museum have been constructed on the site. Visitors can walk in André’s footsteps, learn about Franklin’s life and see some of the types of personal possessions André confiscated. nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/franklin-court
André became the director of British Secret Intelligence in 1779 and began colluding with Arnold to surrender West Point for a price. Before the sale could take place Andre was arrested out of uniform with forged papers, was tried as a spy and executed on October 2, 1780 in New York.
The British disembarked on the dock and marched up High Street on September 26, 1777 to begin the occupation. On 2nd Street Major André stopped and informed Lydia Darragh that they would be using her home as a headquarters because General Sir William Howe was in the neighboring Cadwalader house. Darragh’s request that she and her children be allowed to remain in the home was granted and she began spying on military meetings from an adjacent closet.
On May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress met in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall. At that time in recognition of the importance of espionage to the cause of freedom, they created the Committee of Secret Correspondence, an intelligence organization. That November, the Continental Congress added death as a penalty in the Articles of War for the crime of espionage.
Independence Hall is open every day of the year, hours vary by season and general admission tickets are free. Timed tickets can be purchased online for $1.50. Guided tours are led by National Park Service Rangers into five areas. The Georgian structure was completed in 1753 to function as the meeting place for the Assembly of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Andrew Hamilton designed the edifice and the building, though altered during restorations, was returned to its 1776 appearance in 1950. Independence Hall is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site based on its being the site of the documenting of the universal principles that are the foundations of freedom and democracy internationally. nps.gov/inde/planyourvisit/independencehall
The Second Continental Congress called for a Philadelphia convention in 1787 with the purpose of establishing a framework for a new government with powers greater than those stated in the Articles of the Confederacy. Although the South endorsed the strengthened federal government for the most part, the problems connected with identifying as a “confederation” of states with strong state powers would rear their heads again and ultimately be the most often stated leading cause of the Civil War. It was ratified in 1788.
The framers realized that circumstances change and there would be a need for alteration of the original. Taking this into account, they made the process of amending the Constitution difficult and thought provoking, but not impossible. To date, there are 27 amendments including the Bill of Rights. James Madison wrote the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments, as added protection of individual rights. It is patterned after The Virginia Declaration of Rights and the five-page document was completed in 1791.
Delegates were appointed by the state legislatures and not all states were represented, Thomas Jefferson was in France and George Washington presided over the gathering. Of the 55 delegates, 44 were lawyers. Benjamin Franklin, “The Sage of the Constitution,” was the oldest member at the age of 81. James Madison earned the honorific, “Father of the Constitution.”
George Washington was inaugurated as President of the United States on April 30, 1789. In 1790, the capital was moved from New York to Philadelphia where it remained until 1800. Visitors to the city can visit the site of the third presidential home at 5th and Market. John Adams followed George Washington and resided in the Georgian President’s House until the capital was moved to Washington, DC on May 3, 1800. A ghost structure with interpretive information and audiovisuals is open to the public. nps.gov/inde/learn/historyculture/the-presidents-house
Philadelphia has always been the seat of national dialogue, debate and citizen protest, so it should come as no surprise that Philadelphia is the home of the only site in the country dedicated to exploring, debating and studying the Constitution in an unbiased and non-partisan manner. The National Constitution Center (NCC) features programs, exhibits and information that the early spy networks would never have believed would be open and accessible to the ordinary citizen. The NCC showcases those ideological battles that have been fought since the ratification of the Constitution. #constitutioncenter
‘Speaking Out for Equality: the Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court” is the current groundbreaking exhibition and is incredibly timely. The Supreme Court is scheduled to rule on same-sex marriage as one of the 20 cases remaining in the final month of the 2015 term. The decision will determine the constitutionality of the right for same-sex partners to wed as well as the legality of state bans.
The Constitution Center’s exhibition focus on signature cases that drove the constitutional evolution of the gay rights movement. The galleries are chronological and provide background on changing perceptions and viewpoints in a factual, impartial manner. This is the 50th anniversary of Philadelphia’s first gay rights demonstration in front of Independence Hall on July 4, 1965 and it is fitting that the first exhibit of this type in the country will be on view in Philadelphia.
Gallery highlights include a 6-minute clip of “The Homosexuals,” a 1967 CBS television documentary film narrated by Mike Wallace. The film speaks volumes about prevailing attitudes at that time. A niche display focuses on the evolving viewpoints and portrayals in the media from Billy Crystal in “Soap” to “Empire”. constitutioncenter.org
Philadelphia is one of the country’s premiere destinations and there are always new experiences and old adventures waiting to be experienced in new ways. This summer follow the freedom trail in the footsteps of America’s earliest true believers and modern day trailblazers. # discoverphl and discoverphl.com
I wish you smooth travels!