Leaving Gettysburg that afternoon was emotional. I felt within me a turning point that deepened my understanding of the sacrifices made on the battlefield by both sides. I pointed my rental car toward the highway leading out of town. My next destination on the evening of July 3rd was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
North toward Harrisburg the highway intersects once again with the Turnpike, so I traveled east toward the big city. I was apprehensive about driving blind into congested traffic surrounding Philadelphia. Reading a map while looking for the exit that would take me to the hotel, Holiday Inn Historical Center, for the next two nights was impossible. I had to memorize the streets and hope I had the right turnoff to head downtown.
I called the front desk and received detailed instructions once I drove along downtown streets. But I got lost. Lots of one way streets. I missed my turn, so ended up circling around the building–I couldn’t find it. I finally pulled off the street into a warehouse driveway. As I was speaking with a very pleasant desk clerk, a Philadelphia police car pulled up behind me and hit the lights. I was concerned. However, the officer was just wondering why an out of state vehicle was stopped in the driveway of a closed building. He confirmed my directions to the hotel and off I went to park and register for my room.
Ahhh! I did it! Country bumpkin from the small town arrived in one piece in one of the top five most populated cities in America! If I can handle driving across Pennsylvania, I think I will be just fine on the rest of my journey.
It was late when I settled into my hotel room for the night. I was so excited to actually be in the city. I was only a few hours away from living out the reality of a lifelong dream–celebrating my birthday ON July 4th at Independence Hall. The historical building was a few blocks away. I don’t remember if I slept that night. I wrote in my journal that I was up early and prepared my back pack for an extended visit lasting most of the day. No walking back and forth to the hotel–once I was near Independence Hall, I was staying close by.
Overall, I was disappointed by the location of Independence National Historical Park. Independence Hall is the center piece of the Park, but other historical buildings are scattered around the downtown area, many several blocks away. On all sides of the Independence Hall building and grounds rise modern concrete and steel boxes of office skycrapers with hundreds of windows looking down on the colonial building that is the most important building in America.
I guess I expected the National Historical Park to be arranged similar to Williamsburg, Virginia. It makes perfect sense. Buildings preserved from the 1700s with historical significance would be populated by staff in colonial garb. There would be old-fashioned cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages would roll along narrow passageways. Walking in the atmosphere of the style and times of the British Colonists who were at a turning point as disgruntled British citizens. Now that’s living history.
Not in Philadelphia in 2002. Downtown real estate is prime and every block and corner that could support a tall skyscraper was built shoulder to shoulder, squeezing out the smaller and classical colonial buildings. The only way to get a sense of the historic times that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence would be to stand next to the actual building and not look up. Don’t look at the horizon–there isn’t one. Plain and simple, you are walking downtown Philadelphia sidewalks and it’s all business. I couldn’t take the classic iconic photo of Independence Hall without several tall, modern buildings showing up in the background.
Another disappointment was the atmosphere of confusion that transpired July 4th. I’m not the only tourist arriving to see Independence Hall. Mixed messages were being sent by Park rangers and the group that I met in line to get into the Visitors’ Center were frustrated by misinformation and the general runaround that morning.
Here’s a list of what I had to deal with on July Fourth in Philadelphia: Colin Powell, who was US Secretary of State in 2002, was also in the city that day to receive the annual Liberty Award. He would be presented with the award and give a speeech on a stage erected behind Independence Hall for that purpose. Independence Hall normally has group tours from morning til late afternoon. No tours today, we were told. WHAT?
How can you close Independence Hall on the very day of July 4th, when it’s importance in historical events in 1776 is the reason we’re all in town to celebrate? Then I learned free tickets were necessary to tour the building, if the powers that be (NPS) decided to open Independence Hall in the afternoon. The Visitors Center isn’t giving out any tickets for tours today. (I’m ready to pull my hair out–or somebody’s hair!) What that means is on July 4th, no tickets are needed to take the free tour. It’s first come, first served. Stand in line and be patient. And that’s only IF the building opens for tours.
Did I mention the July heat wave sweeping Pennsylvania? It’s already in the 80s and the heat index will soar to over 100 as I walk around downtown today. I fantasized about celebrating my fiftieth birthday here for so many years that today I will not be denied. If tours are going through Independence Hall today, I will stand under a cloudless sky with a burning sun, on scorching pavement in front of the building with other hot and tired tourists. I’m here and this place is the entire purpose of my road trip. My dream will come true–or someone’s getting a piece of my unhappy and angry mind.
Several of the group of tourists I met in line waiting for the Visitors Center to open figured if we couldn’t take the Independence Hall tour this morning that we would try to see Colin Powell receive the Liberty Award. All we needed was a free ticket to get into the secured area behind the building. Someone told us we needed to talk to someone manning the gate to the event. We walked two blocks enmass to find this vague person. An equipment worker doing setup told us the Visitors Center had the tickets we needed to get in. (Groan!)
So we all walk back to the Visitors Center and approach the information desk–again. “We were told to come here to get free tickets to see Colin Powell this morning.” “The tickets are all gone, we don’t have any.” No tickets–not hearing or seeing the United States Secretary of State. The group parted ways.
I explored the historical displays in the center, depicting colonial life in Philadelphia around 1776. I missed the detail of the Gettysburg museum here. This was not so much of a museum, but panels displaying important people of the times. Not a musket in a case to be found.
I was just killing time this morning. The latest rumor/buzz was the building would open around 1:00pm for limited tours. I found a cafe to have breakfast, but it was more of a coffee shop than a diner. My eye caught sight of a thick wedge of double fudge-frosted chocolate layer cake. Hey–it’s my birthday today! If I want cake for breakfast, I’m having the cake! It was melt-in-my-mouth delicious, with frosting so rich my body almost swooned. I lingered at my table and ate every bite slowly. At the table I considered my options on the map of the National Historical Park layout. Independence Hall is only one of many locations to visit to experience the colonial history of Philadelphia.
I viewed construction fencing surrounding the open, green lawn area. It’s depicted on my map as a broad expanse of common lawn. In 2002, piles of dirt and signs of construction blocked most of that area from public access. I managed to ask a fellow tourist to take my picture (on my birthday) with the iconic image of Independence Hall in the background.
The other most famous icon of Philadelphia is the Liberty Bell. It’s located in a glass-enclosed building and can be seen in plain view from the front sidewalk and street. It resides in a temperature-controlled room. I took the tour to listen to a Park ranger describe the forging of the massive bell and how it got the crack, etc. Due to the terrorists’ attacks on September 11th, less than a year ago, tight security was in place to access the Liberty Bell room. Think of today’s airport conveyor lines and x-ray searches and that’s what every person had to do to get clearance to stand in the presence of the historical icon of American history.
Before 9-11, didn’t need it–after 9-11, must have security measures in place.
The extent of those security measures is something I experienced firsthand when I walked on the sidewalk around the Independence Hall building complex. Portable metal fences, about three feet high enclosed the entire back grounds area. I wanted to get as close as possible to snap photographs of the back of the building. I noticed several bronze statues and attempted to get some pictures of those too.
A park ranger approached me and told me to move away from the fenced area. Denied access to the most historical American building on July 4th, 2002. Grrrr! Later I must have lingered a minute too long for a police officer’s liking because he gruffly told me to “keep moving.”
When it came time for the audience who managed to acquire the free tickets for the morning’s award ceremony to trickle inside the barricaded area, I thought I could at least stand on the other side of the street and catch a glimpse of Colin Powell on stage. Figuring a good sound sytem might carry his speech so I could listen, I stood still on the sidewalk. I wasn’t the only person told to leave the immediate area by police. They made the entire block around the grounds off limits to the public.
Darn it all! I AM AN AMERICAN! And I’m standing near the most historical building in Philadelphia and the police are treating me like I’m a suspicious perpetrator of some despicable deed. Colin Powell is Secretary of State and as an American, I can’t be near him? Please, would someone explain to me what the “Liberty Award” stands for? I would not hurt anybody. I’m just a middle-aged, single mother from Ohio. After 9-11, everyone is looked at with suspicion. People can’t be trusted any more it seems.
Pushed back from the area by a stern police presense, I walked back to the Visitors Center. A bit desperate. I was born around 10:30am and I expected to be near Independence Hall. Best plan was to be inside the Assembly Room at the time of my official birthday. Now I didn’t see any way I could even get close to the building.
Well, inside the Visitors Center was a traveling exhibit. People stood in line to go through and see a 1297 hand written copy of the Magna Carta. You could not take a flash picture of the document, but you could give the glass-encased parchment a close viewing. That’s where I happened to be on the exact time of my birth–fifty years prior. I will always note with a sense of pride and distinction I was in the presence of a MORE historical document than the Declaration of Independence, on July 4, 2002, to mark the time of my birth.
I forgot my World History studies from high school, so I went online after I returned home to relearn the importance of that document. In the 1200s, English barons presented grievances to the King. He was forced to sign the Magna Carta. British order of law was derived from that document and a code of laws were based on that agreement. It’s important to realize that the failure of Parliament and King George in the 1700s to recognize American Colonists rights as British subjects led to the Declaration of Independence being signed on July 4, 1776.
I learned the principles of the Magna Carta are also the basis of the American Constitution. Our founding fathers weighed heavily in the direction of British laws to set up this newly independent country. If the Declaration of Independence is the result of England’s refusal to recognize the rights of it’s colonists to address their grievances according to British laws, then the Magna Carta of the 1200s is the granddaddy of the emerging process of independence declared 500 years later.
And I stood in the same room with a 1297 copy of that document when I turned fifty years old. Very cool!
After I left that area, I ventured out into the hot, humid Philadelphia morning. I walked toward the back of Independence Hall once more, careful to remain out of sight of vigilant patrolmen. I couldn’t get close enough to hear or see the stage. I found a small garden/park and lingered there for a half hour, killing time until I could get in line for the afternoon tours. (The latest rumor was that Independence Hall WOULD be open on July 4th).
On my map was a building that was once a classical Greek-style building known as the Second Bank of the United States. It’s listed now as a Portrait Gallery. The description noted that famous and important men from revolutionary times have their paintings hanging in the museum. So I entered the cool, dim building for a solitary tour of the rooms to view the familiar faces of men who founded our country and the warriors who fought the Revolutionary War to secure freedom from the tyranny of a British king and government.
All the readily recognized portraits hang on the walls there. Several granite and bronze busts sit perched in corners of the gallery rooms. George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson. I paused in front of his painting for a long moment. My mind contemplated Jefferson’s role in drafting the manuscript we Americans so revere to this day. He composed the eloquent writing Americans know by heart: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
56 signatures are documented on the Declaration Of Independence. Their portraits hang in this gallery. I paid my respects as an American citizen afforded those unalienable rights back to the men who forged a new and distinct country in 1776. They were men of honor and means and many of family privilege. Some were self-made men of fortune. They were the Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Donald Trump and Ted Turner of their time.
By affixing their signature to this document, they all knew they were men of treason against king and country. The Declaration of Independence was a death sentence to these men. The last sentence of the document reads: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. —-John Hancock”
I stood in front of Thomas Jefferson’s portrait and said, “Thank you.”
This portrait gallery was just a way stop for me to spend some time inside a air-conditioned building for about an hour. What transpired within me as I wandered freely in the rooms was that American Pilgrimage I was undertaking. I’m further back in time and place. These men pledged their lives, their fortunes and their honor so we could live in the glorious experiment called democracy. I humbled my heart and felt a deep sense of gratitude for what these brave men decided to do to enable me as an American citizen to enjoy a life of freedom in this country.
I was among the presence of men who brought about the turning point in American History by establishing the United States (no longer British colonies) of America.
Other portrait gallery rooms displayed paintings of Revolutionary War generals who fought to achieve our American independence. I was mildly interested. Some of the names were familiar from long-forgotten school textbooks. I stopped to read description information at the bottom of each ornate, gilded frame.
General Horatio Gates. I gazed at the man’s portrait. What caught my attention was the description of his role in the War. General Gates and his Revolutionary forces won the Battle of Saratoga, New York in 1777. British defeat at the Battle of Saratoga decided the fate of General Burgoyne and his army, thus considered the turning point of the Revolutionary War.
Wow! The theme of my American Pilgrimage was to visit turning points in American History–and right here, I’m reading about the General whose victory against British forces at Saratoga, New York was known as the turning point in the Revolutionary War!
I noted this in the back of my mind. I didn’t know who General Horatio Gates was as far as an important American in Revolutionary times, and I wasn’t at all familiar with the Battle of Saratoga, New York events. I remarked in my journal that I would research this turning point in American History when I returned home after my road trip.
How God must have chuckled that day. I had no clue that my plan to stop in New York at the Van Schaick Mansion would give me the most unanticipated, but excited surprise of my journey. I determined that I was only going as far back as July 4, 1776 to acknowledge important turning points in American History. My further drive up to Albany, New York was a personal odyssey. I considered tracking down ancestral verification of the Van Schaick family tree to be a turning point in my life–merely due to the fact that this is the land my ancestors first settled in America in the 1600s.
I left the Portrait Gallery of the Second Bank of the United States with a greater recognition of what price these founding fathers paid to become an independent country. It was around noon. I was hungry, but when I saw a line forming near a checkpoint in front of Independence Hall, I rushed to take my place at the back of the line.
Dedicated tourists, we patiently stood together as an orderly crowd to gain access to the inside of Independence Hall on July 4th. At one o’clock, it was time to be screened in another security line and then we were inside the building’s courtyard to wait our turn to go on the group tour.
I was among tourists in the third group to gather and get a pre-tour speech from the Park ranger. He led our group into the building that was formerly know as the Pennsylvania State House, where the legislature met in colonial Philadelphia. We walked into a broad center hallway. On the right, we crowded into a room replicated as a courtroom. The judge’s high desk towered over our heads. Finally, what we all wanted to see–a tour inside the Assembly Room. We gathered along the bannister railing that barred people from touching the thirteen tables in the room. It looked just like the famous paintings I’ve seen, except no men in colonial clothing stood around the main table to sign their names on the document.
The Park ranger held up a framed copy of the Declaration of Independence. ( The original document, dated July 4, 1776, resides in the Rotunda of the Charters of Freedom in Washington, D.C.). He gave a speech about the historical events that happened in this room in 1776. Not only was the Declaration of Independence approved by the 56 delegates of the thirteen Colonies and signed in this room, but the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were approved and signed in this room.
I stood in the most famous and historical room in all of America. In this room, after months of debate, often contentious arguing among delegates, and several rewritten drafts–The final version of the Declaration of Independence was signed.
July 4, 1776. America’s most important date. It’s a turning point in American History because on that day, rebellious colonists declared this land to be independent of the greatest empire of the world–The British Empire. A rag-tag army of Americans fought against the greater armed and manned forces of England. And won the war. Secured for Americans freedom from tryanny and a new way to govern itself as a fledgling nation.
It began here. This is the most historical room in America. For every American citizen, who has a love of God and Country, who enjoys a life of his own choice, who supports the freedoms guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, who pursues a life of meaning and purpose, needs to stand in this room and honor those men who pledged their very lives, fortunes and sacred honor so we can proudly call ourselves Americans.
The times have changed greatly since 1776. America suffered over one hundred years the burden of Africans sold as slaves to southern plantation owners. A fractured nation divided and fought the Civil War to secure this country as one all-encompassing United States of America. In our generation, foreign terrorists were embraced in our country and used that freedom to destroy innocent lives of thousands and attack symbols of world commerce and military might and power.
America is united in the principles that keep our country free. Security measures in place are meant for our protection, but freedoms are being curtailed in the name of stopping another terrorist attack here. I am saddened to see such measures surrounding this most historical of buildings in Philadelphia on July 4, 2002. This room, this building cannot be replaced. If heightened security will preserve the Assembly Room so that future generations may stand in the room and experience a turning point in American History, then so be it.
I lingered behind the tour group and as one of the last persons to leave the room, I asked someone to take my picture. I’m standing in front of the area where the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776. And today is my 50th birthday. It’s a dream come true to be here!
I left the building and was on my own again with an afternoon of free time. My purpose to be in Philadelphia was fulfilled. The rest of my visit in Philadelphia was purely personal and dedicated to celebrating my birthday and the Fourth of July festivities along with all of Philadelphia.
So much to share about July 4, 2002–I need to write more later! Part II – making a new friend, tracking down a specific birthday present, room service, the grand Philadelphia parade, concert and fireworks, still to come——