By Gary B. Nash
"This morning is assigned for the greatest debate of all," noted John Adams, a Massachusetts delegate to the Second Continental Congress, which was meeting in the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia on July 1, 1776. At the end of that day, the delegates from nine of the 13 colonies rose from the long table in the handsomely paneled room to vote for the Declaration of Independence. The delegates of two colonies voted against the Declaration, written by a committee chaired by Thomas Jefferson; another delegation split its vote; and a fourth abstained. John Hancock, president of Congress, urged unanimity: "There must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together." Benjamin Franklin concurred: "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."
The next day, 12 colonies voted yes, with New York's delegation abstaining. On July 4, Congress sent the Declaration of Independence to the printer. Four days later, Philadelphians thronged the shrub-dotted State House yard to hear it read aloud. They cheered the reading by Philadelphia's sheriff that "these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States." Then they tore the king's coat of arms from above the State House door and later that night, amid more cheers, toasts, and clanging church bells, hurled this symbol of more than a century and a half of colonial dependency on English rule into a roaring bonfire.
Cherished today by millions of visitors each year, Independence Hall was not known by that name for a long time. Rather it opened as the Pennsylvania State House in 1756, when the American colonies were firmly attached to England. Construction of the hall began in 1732 on a gently sloping piece of land five blocks from the Delaware River on the outskirts of the small seaport town, where visiting Native Americans had earlier camped.
All business of the colony, in the hands of the Assembly, the Council, and the Supreme Court, was conducted in this State House. One of its wings lodged visiting Native American delegations. The State House also hosted meetings of the American Philosophical Society, the first scientific and intellectual organization formed in the American colonies; anatomy lectures by the city's eminent doctors; and fancy banquets and balls celebrating the king's birthday or victories in Britain's Seven Years War with France, which lasted from 1756 to 1763. Its yard, later enclosed with a seven-foot brick wall, was also the main site in Philadelphia for casting votes and a gathering place for the public to hear speeches from colonial politicians.
Throughout the Revolution, the State House hummed with the activities not only of the Continental Congress but also the government of Pennsylvania. Elected representatives in each body mingled in the State House, in the streets outside it, in the nearby taverns, and in the salons of wealthy Philadelphians. There, Pennsylvanians met Virginians for the first time; Connecticut men rubbed elbows with Georgians; Rhode Islanders dined with Carolinians. In June 1775, in the
Assembly Room where Congress met, the delegates appointed George Washington as commander in chief of the newly authorized Continental Army. Another 13 months later, on July 15, 1776, delegates from every Pennsylvania county—many of them farmers and artisans—convened here to draft a constitution for Pennsylvania. In 1779, Pennsylvania legislators drafted the first state law abolishing slavery, although gradually.
Two years into the war, the State House suffered all the indignities of an occupying army. When the British defeated the Americans at Brandywine, southwest of the city, the Continental Congress and state government fled, hauling off the State House bell (better known today as the Liberty Bell) to Allentown to keep the British from melting it into metal for ammunition. When British troops led by General William Howe occupied the city between September 1777 and June 1778, the first floor of the State House became a hospital and its second floor a jail for American officers. The dead carried from its bloodied chambers were buried in the Strangers' Burial Ground diagonally behind the State House or were thrown into an open pit dug just outside the building. When the British evacuated the city, they left behind a building "in a most filthy condition and the inside torn much to pieces," according to Josiah Bartlett, a member of the Continental Congress. So foul was the air inside the State House that the returning delegates to the Continental Congress had to meet elsewhere until the building was scrubbed down from top to bottom.
Better times returned to the State House after the British withdrew, but it sometimes became a place of protest as well as a site for celebration. Here Philadelphians rushed in October 1781 to celebrate news of Lord General Charles Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown to Washington's army and his French auxiliaries. Less than two years later, angry Pennsylvanian soldiers surrounded the State House and demanded back pay so vociferously that the Continental Congress fled to the sleepy town of Princeton, never to return to Philadelphia. In 1787, fifty-five delegates from 12 states redignified the old State House when they arrived to spend a hot, muggy summer there writing the Constitution that the states would ratify in the next year. Pennsylvania's ratifying convention met in the State House for several weeks in 1788, and two years later a state convention met there to revise Pennsylvania's constitution. On its heels, the U.S. Congress arrived from New York in December 1790. It would direct the nation from the State House in Philadelphia for 10 years.
In the early 19th century, the State House, with its spacious yard, remained the prime site for celebrating the nation's independence and the birthday of its first President, although it was not yet known as Independence Hall. Even before George Washington died in 1799, Philadelphians were gathering around the State House to toast the President, conduct civic feasts, and display illuminations and transparencies honoring the Founding Fathers. Sometimes the civic festivals bordered on what one proper Quaker lady, Elizabeth Drinker, described in her diary in 1798 as "a little mob fashion."
After Congress declared the Fourth of July a national holiday in 1799, it became the nation's principal patriotic celebration. But it took only a few years for Philadelphia's State House yard to yield to "mob fashion"—with grave results. By 1805, Independence Square had become a place not so much to memorialize the past as to lay down a color line. When black Philadelphians came to celebrate the nation's birthday, white roughnecks drove their fellow citizens from the square with a barrage of rocks and curses.
A few years later, the city's leading African-American sail maker, James Forten, who had fought in the American Revolution as a 15-year-old powder boy on Stephen Decatur's warship, wrote bitterly in his Letters from a Gentleman of Colour, "Is it not wonderful that the day set apart for the festival of liberty, should be abused by the advocates of freedom, in endeavoring to sully what they profess to adore?" The landmark of American ideals had become a staging ground for racial conflicts. For years thereafter, black Philadelphians would celebrate January 1, the day that the horrific slave trade ended in 1808, rather than July 4, as their Independence Day.
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After the war, few people felt inspired to honor the nation's birthplace. In fact, the old State House slowly decayed, especially after the Pennsylvanian government relocated to Lancaster in 1799, and the federal government left Philadelphia for Washington, D.C., the following year. Pennsylvania's legislature had so little regard for what we now esteem as a national shrine that in 1816, seeking money to build a new capitol in Harrisburg, it approved the sale of the State House yard behind the building. The spacious yard, now a restful tree-shaded park in bustling Philadelphia, was to be divided into house lots after streets were run through the yard. The State House itself, along with its now-famous Liberty Bell, was to be sold as surplus property to the highest bidder. In 1802, Charles Willson Peale installed his museum of natural history and curiosities, and his menagerie munched quietly on the State House lawn.
In 1818, the city of Philadelphia came to the rescue of the State House. For $70,000, the city purchased the building and its large yard, but Philadelphians did not truly become interested in the building until 1824. This new affection arose from plans to celebrate the arrival of Marquis de Lafayette, who was on his first visit to the United States since he had fought with the American army nearly a half-century before. Planners for the celebration made the old State House the main site for welcoming the aging French compatriot and rushed to decorate the room where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution had been drafted, debated, and signed.
Lafayette's visit made it clear that the State House was a precious bridge between the past, the present, and the future. Responding to the mayor's welcome, Lafayette referred to "this hallowed Hall" and to the "Birthplace of Independence," noting that "here within these sacred walls ... was boldly declared the independence of these United States," and "here was planned the formation of our virtuous, brave, revolutionary army, and the providential inspiration received that gave the command of it to our beloved, matchless Washington." Now this room acquired a new name—the Hall of Independence—and the timeworn State House acquired a new name—Independence Hall. With a new lease on life, Independence Hall was on its way to becoming a national icon.
Slavery and Independence Hall
Independence Hall has been a symbol of American founding principles, including freedom, equality, and justice. Yet it has been a contested place where Americans divided sharply over how fundamental rights would be made operational. This was clear in the 19th century, when the building was no longer Pennsylvania's State House but became the nerve center of Philadelphia's government.
The Compromise of 1850 included a tough new Fugitive Slave law that permitted Southern slave owners or their agents to come north to seize runaway slaves. These alleged fugitives were denied a jury trial; rather, their fate was determined by federal judges or special commissioners. Independence Hall became the scene where accused fugitives were detained in the U.S. Marshal's office, received hearings, and learned their fates.
In 1851, after a Maryland slave owner was killed at a farm in Christiana, near Lancaster, Pa., while trying to capture his escaped slaves, several dozen African-American and white "conspirators" were charged with treason for interfering with the Fugitive Slave Law. The prisoners were tried in court on the second floor of the State House. Philadelphians were bitterly divided on the issue. Some agreed with Mr. Aaron of the Pennsylvania Antislavery Society that the black Pennsylvanians at Christiana "were only following the example of Washington and the American heroes of '76." Others rallied at a mass meeting in Independence Square "to prevent the recurrence of so terrible a scene upon the soil of Pennsylvania, to ferret out and punish the murderers." If Independence Hall was becoming sacred ground, it also remained a contested ground.
John Admas Writes to His Wife about Signing the Declaration of Independence
John Adams, who was to become the second president of the United States, served as one of the Massachusetts delegates to the Second Continental Congress and a leader in moving the Congress toward accepting the Declaration of Independence. On July 3, 1776, Adams fervently wrote his wife Abigail about the vote of 12 colonies for independence—only New York abstained—in the Assembly Room of what would become known as Independence Hall.
Yesterday the greatest question was decided which ever was decided in America, and a greater, perhaps, never was nor will be decided among men. [Britain had been] filled with folly, and America with wisdom; at least this is my judgment. Time must determine. It is the will of Heaven that the two countries should be sundered forever.... [Independence day will be observed as a holiday,] the most memorable epoch in the history of America [and] will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival.... [It should be commemorated by] a solemn act of devotion to God Almighty.... It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.
Gary B. Nash is professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, director of the National Center for History in Schools, and author of numerous award-winning books. Excerpted with permission from Landmarks of the American Revolution.