Friday, 19 July 2013

Philadelphia: The Hot Bed of Revolution

Independence Hall, originally built at the Pennsylvania State House
While Boston was the hotbed that agitated for revolution, Philadelphia is where it came together.

In the Supreme Court, the prisoner's dock is in the foreground
We arrived bright and early to Independence Hall and were rewarded with a wonderful guide, a former educator keen for us to know more about American Independence. He made it fun with a few laughs here and there, pointing to people for answers and if they didn't know he'd whisper it to them.

Independence Hall was originally built as a colonial legislature called the Pennsylvania State House. But it gained its other alias because it was the place where the Declaration of Independence was debated and adopted, though it's not clear if it was actually signed there. To see the Declaration of Independence, head to the National Archives in Washington... it's very faint, but it's there.

Where the Declaration of Independence was discussed
We were then taken into the room of the Supreme Court where there is a prisoner's dock where the accused literally "stood on trial". This was later changed because having the accused stand throughout the trial made the judge and jury biased; and so now they sit with their defense lawyer.

Another famous item at Independence Hall is the Liberty Bell.

After the Pennsylvania State House was built, it was the most prominent building in British North America. In 1751 the steeple was erected and officials wanted to cast a 2,000-pound bell from England.

While the bell survived the trip from England, it cracked while it was being tested in Philadelphia and had to be recast. It cracked because it was made of an unstable mix of metals making it brittle. Then, believe it or not, it cracked again in the first half of the 19th century.

Sadly the furniture is not authentic, but as close to the original
But the Americans still love their Liberty Bell and call it "a sacred relic", a tangible link to freedom that created the nation. It is also called a "symbol of patriotic sacrifice in times of national crisis" and related to the anti-slavery movement, as Martin Luther King Jr's speech talked about letting freedom ring.

The bell is housed in a large room, but you have to read all kind of boards and look at pictures, building momentum before you finally get to the bell. And it's... anticlimactic really. It's a small bell with a massive crack on the front... We were remarking how the Japanese produced even bigger bells a long time ago -- without cracks...

Liberty Bell with its massive cracks
We then crossed the street from Independence Hall where there's a cemetery and in it is the grave of Benjamin Franklin. You don't have to pay the entrance fee to visit him because his grave is conveniently located in the corner by the wrought-iron fence so you can see it clearly.

On the brick wall next to it is a plaque listing his life and achievements in chronological order and his career seems to fit more than one man because of all the things he did. For example, at 23 he was the editor of the Pennsylvania Gazette, then founded the Philadelphia Public Library. He was appointed Postmaster of Philadelphia and a few years later invented the Franklin open stove.

Then he founded Pennsylvania Hospital and was the first to use electricity, became a liaison between the British and the colonists, became speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, Postmaster of the colonies, signed the Declaration of Independence, negotiated Treaties of Amity and Commerce, and of alliance with France, and finally member of the Constitutional Convention of the United States before dying at the age of 84.

Puts most of us to shame! And this was in the 1700s!

Benjamin Franklin's long list of achievements
A few streets down from the cemetery is Betsy Ross' house, a small but dense house filled with rooms and a basement. For a small admission you can check out the rooms and find out more about her life.

She was the eighth of 17 children in a family of Quakers, and her life was by no means easy. She was shunned by her family when she married a man of a different faith and was widowed three times, twice by the age of 30.

After going through the rooms in the house, we came to the final one where met a kind elderly woman in period costume. She introduced herself as Betsy Ross and in her half English, half New England accent, she explained the origins of the American flag.

When she grew up she apprenticed as an upholsterer where they made curtains, bed covers, tablecloths and umbrellas. A few years later George Washington walked into her shop, not explaining who he was, but she had an inkling. He explained he wanted a few flag and could she make one?

Betsy Ross' house complete with the new flag
She said she had never made a flag before, but was willing to try. She had to do this in secret because creating a new flag would be disloyal to England, so she made it after hours in her room.

Ross explained that she made changes to the design Washington had wanted. While the 13 stripes representing each of the colonies were used well before him, the stars were new. She suggested that they be placed in a circle to symbolize unity.

Then she said it would be better if the stars had five points instead of six, mostly because it was easier. With that she took a square piece of paper, folded it a few times, snipped it at an angle and voila! A perfect five-pointed star. Later my Dad tried to replicate it, but kept getting six points...

Betsy Ross explaining how she helped design the flag
Perhaps what's most ironic is that the fabric used to make the flag was from England. Ross also explained she was nicknamed "the little rebel", not only because of her size and for making the flag, but also because she made cartridges for soldiers, mending their uniforms and made tents too.

She lived a long life too -- also to the age of 84.

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