As I stood in Independence Hall, in the room where the Founders debated the Declaration of Independence, I suddenly started thinking of the opening scene from the musical 1776, when John Adams cries for independence while everyone else complains about either the heat or the flies. “Won’t somebody open up a window?” one of the delegates pleads. “Too many flies!” others respond, shouting him down. Adams is advocating the most lofty of ideas but everyone else is mired in their own personal discomfort. What a great metaphor.
To stand in that room where Adams and the other delegates worked was a privilege. The tour group consisted of 50 people or so, so there was no opportunity for quiet reflection. There was no sublime, transcendent moment of awe or epiphany. The tour guide could not even tell me which table Adams sat at except “toward the back over here somewhere.”
(He did point out James Madison’s seat for the Constitutional Convention, so that was cool, as well as the spot where Ben Franklin sat as he made his infamous quip about the rising sun on the back of George Washington’s chair.)
Such monumental history took place in that room.
If the delegates complained of heat or flies (or John Adams), then my small plague were the crowds. The park swarmed with people. NPS friends who’ve worked at Independence have lamented to me that the primary focus is crowd control and people management, not historical interpretation. I finally saw first-hand how true that was.
Despite the size of the tour group I was with in Independence Hall, though, I carried my own sense of awe into the room and felt its resonance.
I also had the chance to see the spot where Adams was sworn in as president of United States in the adjacent Congress Hall, the building that housed the capital for 10 years while Washington, DC, took shape. There, the guide was a self-professed Hamiltonian who had only two good things to say about Adams’s presidency: he kept us out of a war with France and I can’t remember the other. As an Adams groupie, I’m no fan of Hamilton, so I didn’t give his disciple much credence.
For me, the entire trip to Independence was an opportunity to walk in Adams’s footsteps. We even had lunch at City Tavern, where many of the Founders hung out after hours. Adams was particularly fond of the place.
My son and I took in as much as we could in the few hours we had available, which also included a visit to Ben Franklin’s grave (the cemetery charges $3 admission—be forewarned) and the reconstructed building on the spot where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately, there were many museums we didn’t have the time to visit and many sites we had to pass by or breeze through.
Complicating matters, the sites all seemed to have different operating hours—some opening at 9 a.m., others at 10, others from 1-4, others only on weekends. The park boasts more than 20 sites—not including the non-NPS-affiliated sites also speckled throughout the historic district—and while the Historic Philadelphia Gazette offered a programming schedule and operating info, it was all still a challenge to keep track of.
Nonetheless, I count my visit to Independence NHP an excellent success, and I’m tantalized to return. I felt thrilled to stand in the room where America was born.