Having a touch of history

Published 3:57 pm Friday, June 5, 2009

Our granddaughter, Leah, 13, has discovered American history.

Credit her teacher of American history at Swift Creek Middle School in Tallahassee, one of those rare teachers who can incite young learners in the meaning of America.

Leah, her mother and her grandmother, this past weekend spent three days in Philadelphia, an end-of-the-year trip for Leah to get a hands-on experience of American history. She loved it.

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Her mother, our daughter, Tricia, on their return put together a slide show of their weekend, and placed it on the Internet so we all could see it. Her photographs of Independence Hall, interior and exterior, brought back personal memories of my own visits several times over the years to this historic building.

As a school boy on a class trip, it was just another old building, having some significance from our eighth-grade American history lessons, but having little personal impact on my sense of heritage. In the 1950s, and later a visit in the mid ’70s, the catch word “security” had yet been invented in which to enslave us.

The Liberty Bell was in the building, and you could walk by it, touch it, stand by it, get your photo taken standing next to it. Today, the bell has been removed into its own building across the mall, where you can walk by it, look at it, but don’t even think about leaning over the rope barrier to touch it.

We shall pause here for a little historical background of Independence Hall.

Independence Hall, as we should know, is in Philadelphia, Penn., downtown on Chestnut Street, between 5th and 6th streets. This national historic landmark was completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House for the colonial Province of Pennsylvania.

From 1775 to 1783, it was the meeting place for the 2nd Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution were both drafted and signed here in its historic assembly room, still intact as it was in 1776, George Washington presiding, his chair in its original place with its historic carving of the rising-setting sun.

It is a Georgian-style, red-brick building, designed by Edmund Woolley and Andrew Hamilton, and built by Woolley. Its highest point is 135 feet, the peak of the bell tower, and it was commissioned by the Pennsylvania colonial legislature to be its meeting house. Two smaller buildings grace each side, the old city hall to the east, and Congress Hall to the west.

If you cannot recall the physical appearance of the building, take out a $100 bill from your wallet and view the reverse side. Then be a great American and spend it. It is also featured on the Bicentennial Kennedy half dollar. And if you happened to have a $2 bill stashed away as a souvenir, (since that’s about all it’s good for) the assembly room is pictured on the reverse side, taken from the original painting by John Trumbull titled “Declaration of Independence.”

The highly recognizable bell tower steeple originally housed the Liberty Bell, and as we all know, it cracked early upon its first bonging.

The tower now holds the “Centennial Bell” created for the U.S. Centennial Exposition in 1876. In 1976, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain visited Philadelphia and presented a gift to the American people of a replica of the Bicentennial Bell, which was cast in the same British foundry as the original. This bell hangs in a tower nearby.

In the assembly room of Independence Hall, the Continental Congress nominated George Washington as commander of the Continental Army and appointed Ben Franklin to be the first Postmaster General.

We were in Philly last summer, at the height of the tourist season, and at the height of a heat wave. Temperatures on the street was almost unbearable, even hotter than right here at home in southwest Georgia, if you can believe it.

There were long lines outside the building waiting to get in. We did not join them. But I last visited inside the building something in the 1970s, and remember climbing the steps to the second floor were there are several grand exhibit halls. Looking down from the top of the stairs, there was the Liberty Bell on display, and as I said before, as folks passed by, they touched it. And my photo showed the bell from its top as with many hands touching the bell.

It was one of those rare moments when you must touch, or was it the reverse, the bell reaching out to all who passed—“please touch me.” The obvious crack also told you this was the original.

When you go across the street to the Liberty Bell Center, the guard rail surrounding the bell quietly says, “keep your distance.” I asked the guard in attendance last summer how long had it been since the bell had been removed from Independence Hall, and he was surprised to learn that it was even there in the first place.

Historic buildings like Independence Hall should move us. If you have any sense of history, you realize these buildings are part of our heritage.

I can never forget visiting the Virginia Statehouse in Richmond some years ago, entering the old House of Representatives chamber, where Aaron Burr was tried, now a museum room, when a little old lady with blue hair approached, and said that I was standing on the very same spot where Robert E. Lee stood when he accepted the command of the Army of Virginia.

Now that’s big-time touchable.