Monday, October 14, 2013

Independence Hall, Itching for a Fight

Like most kids raised outside of New England, I suppose my earliest tour guide through Colonial America was Walt Disney. Televised reruns of classic films like Johnny Tremain (1957) and the animated Ben and Me (1953) coupled with my imagination to turn me into an idealistic young member of the Sons of Liberty or Benjamin Franklin's collegial churchmouse, depending on the moment. By the time college rolled round, I was a prime candidate for a major in history and when 1776 (1972) was released, I fell in love. With the movie, that is. There was a girl at the time, but that's another story and love wasn't destined to be the key player in our plot line.

Independence Hall is another matter. When Benjamin Gates was there, in National Treasure (2004), I was still in the throes of seeking medical school admission. It was the second of a three year process that ultimately led me to Maine and a farm on the banks of the Saco River in a town founded in 1772. But medical school is time consuming and Philadelphia miles away. It wasn't until this past week that the spin of fate's roulette wheel dropped me into place within a stone's throw of the building in which the Declaration of Independence was debated and signed.

As I wrote yesterday, I'd been in Philly for a day -- actually, two, one to settle in and get a decent night's rest, the second to repeat a medical board exam. I wasn't sure when I'd be finished, so I scheduled my flight home for late in the evening. Done at three, there was time to drive by Independence Hall, if nothing else. At least I could say I'd seen it. Well, you can guess the rest. Once I saw it, I had to find a parking space that wasn't reserved for carriages, and get as close as I could. 

A skeleton crew of park rangers or police, I never quite figured out which they were, had everything cordoned off, but it was still possible to walk along South Fifth St. and place my hand on the outside wall of Philosophical Hall, that adjoins Independence Hall on the north. Philosophical Hall is where Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society. Immediately across the street is the Library Building, the site of the first public library in America, also founded by Franklin, whose statue adorns the facade over the entry.

I wasn't prepared for how it would feel, seeing Independence Hall for the first time. It's different from Boston and Patriot's Day or Maine and First Parish Meeting House, where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in this part of the Colonies. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, the war moved south. One of my neighbors, or he would have been had I lived in 1775, Lieutenant Samuel Merrill (his restored farm is Jessie Livingstone's dream house in Pink Hats), fought at Bunker Hill. I'd have been there with him, if I could. But what I mean is, there is a comfortable quality, almost an ordinariness in the best sense of the word, about the Revolutionary period up here -- it seems less formal, cozier, more familiar. It's everywhere you look. It's like visiting an old friend.

Independence Hall is surrounded by downtown Philadelphia. It's an urban environment and it was back then, too. As urban as you could get in 1776 when street sweepers cleaned up horse manure rather than cans and candy wrappers. Once you get past that, there's a feeling that virtually seeps out of the cobblestones. It was as though I was part of something electric, exciting, on the brink. There's a tension in that historic square mile that hasn't dissipated one bit in three hundred years. Visit City Tavern and you're certain Jefferson and John Adams will be there, plotting Revolution over a pint. One sight leads to another and before you know it, you're reaching for your flintlock, itching for a fight. 

I liked Philadelphia. It's a young city and a friendly one. The residents drive like bats from hell on the highways, but meet them anywhere else and they're pleasant and easy to engage. It's a city, nevertheless, and Portland is big enough for me. I loved Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, but I love our homespun version up here even more. I'm sure Lt. Merrill must have felt similarly, when he left Boston behind for his farm on the banks of the Saco River.  

(Photo copyright 2013 by the author. Additional images of Independence Hall may be seen here.)
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