We visited Philadelphia recently, specifically Old Town, that part of the city where the Founding Fathers created the Declaration of Independence, and later drew up the blueprint for the America Republic, the U.S. Constitution.
The home of Benjamin Franklin–Philadelphia's favorite son–is located in the heart of Old Town. Franklin was something of a Renaissance Man who mastered nearly everything he set his creative mind on doing – inventor, entrepreneur, writer, businessman, civic leader, diplomate, and statesmen.
Franklin is the only individual to have signed America's four founding documents: the Treaty with France, the Peace Treaty with England, and the aforementioned Declaration of Independence and Constitution.
Historians have determined that Franklin was one of three geniuses among our Founding Fathers (the other two were Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton). Born in Boston in 1706, he had but two years of formal eduction, and was mostly self taught. He moved to Philadelphia in 1723, where six years later he took over publication of the Pennsylvania Gazette, turning it from a dull, poorly managed paper to the most successful newspaper in the colonies. His most profitable venture, however, was Poor Richard's Almanack. Published annually from 1732 to 1758, the Almanack included witty and wise sayings that preached frugality, industry, and thrift.
Of all the Founders, Franklin was the person most responsible for instilling in the new nation the virtue that is central to its role in the world struggle: religious tolerance. Also, he was the only Founding Father who was more enthusiastic about democracy than were most of his compatriots. Some feared and hated "the Mob"; Franklin–as with our 16th president, Abraham Lincoln–had faith in the wisdom of common folk. Through his self-improvement schemes for furthering the common good, he helped to create a new class of ordinary citizens tolerant of their neighbors.
Working with 12 friends who called themselves the Junto Society, Franklin sought to improve his city and the lives of his fellow Philadelphians. He formed the Library Company, the nation's first free public library, in 1731; the volunteer Union Fire Company, in 1736; the American Philosophical Society, in 1743; and the Pennsylvania Hospital, in 1751. The following year, he cofounded the Philadelphia Contributionship for Insurance against Loss by Fire. These are still in existence today, with the Fire Company now a city agency.
A life-long learner, Franklin valued education, and helped found the University of Pennsylvania. He also helped launch civic projects to pave, clean, and light Philadelphia's streets.
It was in the early 1750s that Franklin retired from printing and turned his keen intellect to science. The Benjamin Franklin Museum, located on the same grounds as his house, features the results of Franklin's famous experiments with electricity, which led him to coin the terms "negative" and "positive," and "battery" and to invent the lightning rod. Other inventions include a heat-efficient stove (a.k.a. the clean-burning Franklin Stove), bifocal glasses, an odometer, and a beguiling musical instrument called the Glass Armonica.
Among his most telling quotes are the following: "What is serving God? Tis doing Good to Man." "From a Child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books." "There never was a good war or a bad peace." “I will speak ill of no man, and speak all the good I know of everybody.” "Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day."
FOUR REMARKABLE BUILDINGS
We stayed at the Renascence Hotel on Chestnut Street. Across the street were four remarkable buildings: Independence Hall, Congress Hall, City Hall, and the Second Bank of the United States.
It was in the great room of the former Pennsylvania State House (since renamed Independence Hall) that the second continental congress debated and signed the Declaration of Independence, in 1776. Eleven years later, in 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention met in the same building to discuss, draft, and sign the Constitution of the United States..
Philadelphia served as the temporary capital of the United States from 1790 to 1800 while the city of Washington D.C. was being built. During this time, the House of Representatives and Senate met at the former Philadelphia County Courthouse, now known as Congress Hall.
City Hall is where the Supreme Court met, sharing space with the mayor's court. Meanwhile, one block away, a three-story brick house on Market Street served as the President's House.
THE PRESIDENT'S HOUSE
Many firsts occurred at the President's House, such as the first cabinet meeting, called by President George Washington in 1791. Today, however the house is notorious for having housed nine enslaved Africans during Washington's presidency, slaves he brought to the house, from Mount Vernon. Evidence of this was discovered in the 1990s while archeologists were excavating the house's foundation. The surprise was not that Washington owned slaves, but rather that he quartered them in Pennsylvania, a northern state that had abolished slavery in 1780. The law stated that enslaved Africans would be freed after six months of continuous residence in the state. To get around the law, Washington arranged to rotate his slaves out of state every few months. Even more egregious, he signed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, which made it a federal crime to aid a slave's escape, and denied them legal defense or a trial by jury.
While the house no longer exists, the building site recreates the layout of the first floor, and serves as an open-air commemoration that pays homage to the documented enslaved Africans who lived and worked at the house during Washington's presidency.
The other remarkable building we visited was directly across the street from our hotel, a Greek Revival structure that served our national government as the Second Bank of the United States. If you know your history, you might recall this is the national bank that President Andrew Jackson destroyed in his last year in office. Thereafter, the bank operated as a wholly private enterprise, until 1841 when, due to a lack of funds, it was liquidated.
Today, the building is managed by the National Park Service, and remains open to the public, as a museum for portraits of famous early Americans who helped found the American Republic, including Benjamin Franklin, George and Martha Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Dolley and James Madison, John Hancock, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Morris, and, could it be? Andrew Jackson. Most of the portraits are the work of one artist–Charles Wilson Peale.
With its eight Corinthian columns, the Second Bank of the United States, is an elegant building, that we looked down upon from our second story hotel room, and admired each morning while seated outside having breakfast.
While walking around the city, we enjoyed lunching on a sandwich Philadelphia is known for, the famed Philadelphia cheesesteak. Yum!
THE BARNES COLLECTION
Our final stop was The Barnes Collection that, according to management, "features the world's greatest collection of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early modern paintings." If you appreciate the artistic work of Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gough–this place is a feast for the eyes.