July-August 2016 – I thought it would be bigger, the Liberty Bell. Its famously cracked face is dimmed by shadows created by bright sunshine pouring through large windows. Still, a steady stream of visitors of all nationalities hover around to take photos beside this stately, storied bell.
One might think it all would be larger, grander. But the buildings at Independence Mall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, recall a modest beginning. Visitors stop by the Independence National Historical Park visitor center to pick up free, timed entry tickets to Independence Hall before taking a few steps across an inviting green plaza to the cluster of unassuming red brick buildings where great men met to birth a brand new system of government.
Inside Independence Hall, a park ranger tells the story of two simple rooms: one a colonial courtroom; the other, the room where the nation’s leaders met to sign our most important documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. In the west wing of Independence Hall, copies of these documents are on exhibit.
Next door at Congress Hall, where the first U.S. House and Senate met, guests sit briefly behind the dark panels of a desk that curves to fill three sides of the room. They then travel upstairs to view the small space that had been apportioned to the Senate.
“Many people felt the Senate chamber was made to be too grand,” the guide points out.
Perhaps colored paint and curtains were portents of grandeur in colonial times. But to modern eyes, there is startling simplicity to the rooms that once housed the most important persons and events in the nation.
The country’s beginning was not only humble, but also fragile. Shortly after the bold signing of the Declaration of Independence came occupation by the British, who turned furniture where the signers had sat into firewood and used the room as an infirmary for sick and wounded troops.
Going into the Liberty Bell Center on the way back to the visitor center, it seems fitting that the bell with its strangely marred face serves as the emblem of hope America has given to the world. It catches attention not because the beauty of its design was untouched, but because it has survived, still declaring the message of freedom with which it was inscribed. Defining the bell’s symbolism, and giving it its name, is the stirring Old Testament verse Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
Like the bell, America has borne scathing marks of injury since the founders set about devising what they could of a flawless design. But the grand and beautiful experiment goes on, teaching the delights and challenges of freedom to all the world.
Believing in liberty
A visit to Independence National Historical Park is a fun, free pilgrimage every patriotic American should consider. Beyond Independence Mall, heading east toward the Delaware River, streets are thick with more historic sites in walking distance.
Countless museums, restaurants, shops, and picturesque townhouses are an attraction in their own right, but it is the historic significance of Independence Mall that is unforgettable.
The park reminds us of our nation’s relative youth, the daring venture the Founding Fathers set forth, and the struggles that have been met and perhaps momentarily caused us to falter, but have been overcome. It gives hope to face whatever lies ahead and faith in the trustworthiness of the founders’ design.
As John Adams stated in 1776, in a quote displayed in the west wing exhibit at Independence Hall: “[Americans have been given] a fair opportunity to form the wisest and happiest government that human wisdom can contrive.”
We still retain that blessed opportunity, and the monuments at Independence Hall call us to reflect in gratitude on the good government that others labored to grant to us, and which has survived for us to enjoy and honor and uphold.
Especially in this year of political posturing and ominous upcoming elections, it is both sobering and encouraging to visit the place where our republic experienced its birth pangs 240 years ago.
Know before you go
▶ Reserve tickets for Independence Hall on the park website.
▶ Allow 45 minutes to travel from tour to tour and through security screening.
▶ Prepare for large bags, backpacks, etc. to be searched.
▶ Download NPS Mobile App to learn more about historic sites around town.
▶ Stations adjacent to Independence Mall include:
Indego bikes (rideindego.com) – Independence Mall, Market Street station
PHLASH bus (ridephillyphlash.com) – 6th and Market Street stop
SEPTA subway (septa.org) –5th Street station, Market Frankford line
Free sites in America’s most historic square mile
▶ Christ Church, where the Washington and Franklin families worshipped
▶ Christ Church Burial Ground, where several signers are buried
▶ Franklin Court, where Benjamin Franklin lived and operated a print shop and the first U.S. post office
▶ Declaration House, where Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence
▶ Carpenter’s Hall, where the First Continental congress met in 1774
▶ United States Mint, where the first U.S. coins were minted and visitors can watch modern coining operations.