Third day, April 21st.
I wake up very early to beat rush hour traffic and head northeast to Philadelphia.
I start my wanderings with the President’s House site, where the first two Presidents of the United States, George Washington and John Adams, had lived while the White House was being built. (Adams moved in to the unfinished White House in 1800, during the last months of his presidency.) Jefferson visited this house many times during both of their administrations. The foundations exist and were excavated and studied, and now have a open-air exhibit there, which was brand-new when we were there years ago.
It’s a lovely exhibit, not only describing the house and the presidents and their families that lived there, but telling the stories of Washingtons’ slaves, left out of history until recently. More on this in a later piece.
Next, I visit the Christ Church burial ground across from the Free Quaker Meeting House, where Jefferson’s friend and personal idol Benjamin Franklin is buried. I head first to Franklin’s tomb, where he lies with his wife and members of his family. Franklin had the virtues Jefferson admired most: he was a curious, adventurous, learned, and sociable man; a gifted politician, diplomat, storyteller, and above all, a scientist. In other words, Franklin was the embodiment of the ideal Enlightenment man. More about Franklin to come.
When I ask one of the men attending the gate where another of Jefferson’s colleagues, Dr. Benjamin Rush, is buried, he’s very glad to show me the way, exclaiming that Rush is his favorite among those notables buried here. Rush was also a great friend of Jefferson’s and frequent correspondent, and without his efforts, Jefferson and John Adams may never have resumed their friendship, which had been strained by the infighting among Washington’s administration between Adams and Federalists and Jefferson’s Republicans, and broken by their contentious presidential races.
The man who showed me the way is right: I would find Rush an excellent subject of another history series like this in his own right, as he lived a long, fascinating life. In addition to his role as a founding father of the United States, he cared deeply about important social issues and founded or served in several public service organizations. He was also curiously backward-thinking and innovative at the same time as a physician: for example, he continued to practice and promote blood-letting as a medical cure even as the medical field was doubting its efficacy and phasing it out, and had rather medieval-sounding theories about how disease is spread; yet, he was a pioneer in the study of mental disorders, describing them diseases of the mind instead of ‘spiritual’ maladies, and is often referred to as the founder of American psychiatry.
I discover that Francis Hopkinson is buried here as well. He was another good friend of Jefferson’s, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence and fellow member of the American Philosophical Society; he helped lead its revival after the Revolution. ‘Philosophical’, in that time, was a broader term than it is today, referring to inquiry into everything that exists and how it all works; scientific inquiry was included. Franklin put it this way: the APS was a foundation dedicated to ‘the promotion of useful knowledge’. (I prefer Franklin’s description to today’s conception of philosophy, and approach it much the same way.) More on the APS shortly.
As I turn around to head to my next destination, I notice a beautiful statue in front of the National Museum of American Jewish History, across the street from where the boarding house had been. It’s entitled ‘Religious Liberty’.
There was a historic exchange between George Washington and his administration, of which Jefferson was Secretary of State, and the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, which was an important moment in the new nation’s history of establishing a completely secular government which tasked itself with defending the right to complete religious liberty. (We’re still figuring out how to best go about it to this day.) Jefferson had made the establishment of religious freedom among the most important missions in his life; he directed that his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom be one of only three of his accomplishments carved on his tombstone. For a nation which had just separated themselves from the Old World, torn apart with one bloody religious conflict after another over for centuries, religious liberty was a wonderfully freeing, invigorating, humanistic social experiment.
It’s somewhere between 3rd and 4th on Chestnut. But I don’t know exactly where, and I find nothing indicating where it had been. Instead, I’m drawn to a sign indicating the site of two buildings Ben Franklin owned and lived in with his family the last five years of his life is located just down an alley next to the National Liberty Museum. I take a peek. Those curved concrete structures you see among the steel outlines of the original shapes of the buildings are windows into the archaeological excavations of the sites. So interesting. I love archaeology; I wanted to be an archaeologist when I was a kid. (Like most kids of the Indiana Jones generation, I’m sure!)
Across the street, I find Carpenter’s Hall, where the First Continental Congress met. Jefferson wasn’t a delegate to that first one in 1774, but he wrote ‘A Summary View of the Rights of British America’ that year which Washington and Adams, who attended, admired and passed around to the other delegates. It was among the reasons Jefferson was eventually asked to write the Declaration of Independence, since he had already done such an excellent job on what Washington called ‘Mr. Jefferson’s Bill of Rights.’
The Hall is open to the public, so I go inside. I ask a man attending the door, and a woman working behind a counter, if either of them know of the site I’m looking for, but they don’t. The woman helpfully goes to her computer to see if she can find anything, but no luck.
I’m glad I asked though. By way of explanation as to why the site may be lost to history, the man tells me a brief history of how the National Park service took over Independence Hall and the Old City area of Philadelphia in the 1950’s, and the shockingly careless and reckless way they went about ‘restoring’ it (by today’s standards). The old buildings were crumbling and crowded by shabby, more modern buildings, and the city quickly had much of them condemned so they could be cleared away and the character of the old city could be revealed.
So, the man continues, the National Park Service ‘marked everything with an X’ that wasn’t immediately identifiable as having to do directly with the founding of the nation, and the wreckers went to work. Philadelphians who knew the city and its history better, however, started flooding the NPS and city officials with letters, informing them that they were knocking down important historical buildings, among them the first military building of the new nation, to the right and in front of Carpenter’s Hall (which they rebuilt from the rubble they had just made of it; you can see it in the first photo of the Hall above, to the right of the cobblestone alley) and Gilbert Stuart’s house, painter of some of the most iconic portraits of Jefferson, Washington, and other founders. OOOPS!!!
The man’s story reminds me of what I discovered in NYC in my Rose and Stanton series, that until very recently, we Americans had a distinct lack of appreciation for our historical architecture. In the restless pursuit of progress, we went about knocking our old buildings down with wild abandon, as long as someone could make a few bucks by doing so. Much of our history has been lost in this way, and in my opinion, many United States cities have been uglified as a result. Sigh. I wonder if this is part of the reason why Europeans historically have disliked and distrusted American tourists. I’m glad to say we’re much better about such things these days.
Then to a reconstructed 18th century garden behind the old Todd house. The garden is pretty, with lots of gorgeous tulips and trees with their new tender springtime leaves, but like the old-style gardens behind the Governor’s Palace in Williamsburg, too rigidly geometric in design for my taste.John Todd’s young widow Dolley married Jefferson’s close friend, protege, and ‘Father of the Constitution’ James Madison just a year after Todd’s death in 1793. (If it seems a little heartless to move on so quickly, well, what else could a woman do in those days? It was either be married and have social standing and financial support, or single, jobless, and unless you inherited money, penniless.) Anyway, it’s a handsome house, but just like the others.
To my amusement, a plaque I come across states more or less the same observation I’ve been making in my historical tour of this area. In 1799, a visiting British diplomat reported ‘The regularity of Philadelphia is so great, the streets are so much like each other and the houses so nearly the same size (being built of one coloured brick) that I do not think there is anything else wor
thy of remark about it.’
I suddenly notice how quickly time’s passing, and I hurry back to the Independence Hall square to queue up for my visit, since there’s a security inspection first. After I’m cleared and waiting with the tour group, I find I’m actually standing right next to my next intended destination, Philosophical Hall (one of the two halls of the American Philosophy Society), behind and to the left of Independence Hall if you’re facing it from the front.
I’m so disappointed to find that the APS museum, which has an amazing-looking Jefferson-and-science exhibition going on right now, is closed, and will not be open again till Thursday. So, so sad! because I won’t have the chance to get back before I leave. My first big disappointment of the trip.
After wandering around Independence Hall and getting a good look at it from all sides, I find, in front and to the right, the place where Jefferson’s hero Washington (hero in integrity and military prowess, but not politically or even intellectually) was sworn in as the first President of the United States, as was Jefferson’s dear friend and despised political enemy Adams. The first sessions of the Senate and House of Reps were also held here, until the new capitol building in Washington D.C. was finished in 1800.
I leave the Independence Hall grounds and continue my tour around the corner down 5th Street, where the American Philosophical Society’s beautiful Library Hall stands (across the street from Philosophical Hall). It’s a reproduction of the original, with a grand statue of its founder presiding over its facade in a large central niche over the front entrance.
As aforementioned, the APS was founded in 1743 by America’s most-loved brainiac, Ben Franklin. Franklin was America’s native scientist extraordinaire, and spent his life conducting scientific experiments, disseminating knowledge to the public as widely as possible, participating in politics, and traveling the world. In other words, he lived out the virtues and carried out the practices of Jefferson’s designated ‘Three Greatest Men’ Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, and John Locke. Jefferson admired Bacon for his primary role in inventing the scientific process of observation, theory formulation, and experiment; Newton, for his brilliance in mathematics and logical reasoning and his radical new approach to physics; and Locke, for re-evaluating human nature and their rights and formulating a new political theory more in keeping with human dignity.
The exhibits in the main entry hall are fascinating and beautifully laid out.
I leave Library Hall and return to where I had left Todd house earlier to hurry back for my Independence Hall tour. I find what I’m looking for: the site of the aforementioned Dr. Benjamin Rush’s house, down the street from the Todd house on Walnut, at the 3rd Street end of the block. Jefferson visited this house regularly.
I continue my tour to the site of Robert Bell’s print shop. The first edition of Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ was printed here in January of 1776. As you probably know, Paine’s pamphlet was the most famous and most eloquent exposition of the colonies’ cause for independence from Britain, and did more to popularize and gather support for it than any other publication. Jefferson was a great friend and admirer of Paine, and shared not only his political views, but many (yet not all) of Paine’s progressive religious views, probably best described as Deistic with shades of Unitarianism. In fact, Jefferson remained a staunch supporter of Paine even after his reputation suffered and most of his friends abandoned him following his publication of his anti-clerical, unorthodox ‘The Age of Reason’. Always the champion of freethought and religious liberty, Jefferson put his money where his mouth was and put his own political career at risk by welcoming Paine as an honored visitor to the White House.
I realize I’ve been a little haphazard in my site-seeking, and should skedaddle back to re-visit Declaration House, a little museum where Jacob Graff’s house used to stand, just outside of the Old City area at 7th and Market. Jefferson lived here in 1776, where he wrote the Declaration of Independence. I had visited this site a few years ago during my visit years ago with Bryan, but this journey I’m on won’t really be complete unless I return for at least a brief visit. Graff’s actual house is no longer standing, just the house that was next to it, but I remember that the original rooms were carefully re-created. I arrive to find that the Declaration House, the museum, the old house next to it, and the grounds are closed ’till summer at least, according to the guard standing watch, due to construction around the site.
I return to Old City, to the corner of Market and 2nd near Christ Church, where John Dunlap’s print shop used to stand, which printed the first broadside of the Declaration of Independence. I can’t find a plaque or anything else to indicate exactly where it stood. (I subsequently discover there is a small, rather obscure plaque marking the site, on the building you can see in the far left of my photo: it’s to the right of the
right-hand door that’s obscured by the white tile-covered structure. So hurray, I take a picture of the correct building without realizing it!)
Last but not least, I return to City Tavern, where, because I can very sentimental at times, I pay way too much for a ‘Thomas Jefferson ale’ as I had when I was here years ago with Bryan, and accompanied it with some indifferent (yet welcome, since I was tired and hungry) soup and bread.
*Listen to the podcast version here or on iTunes.
Sources and Inspiration:
American Philosophical Society, website.
‘Benjamin Rush’, Penn Biographies, Penn University Archives and Reference Center website.
‘George Washington and his Letter to the Jews of Newport’, Touro Synagogue website.
Gilbert Stuart: The Complete Works. Website
Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Owl Books, 2004.
‘James Madison’, White House website.
Jefferson: Writings. Compiled by The Library of America, New York: Penguin Books.
‘Jefferson’s Walking Tour of Philadelphia’. apsmuseum.org: website of the American Philosophical Society
Jenkinson, Clay. The Thomas Jefferson Hour. Podcast.
Meacham, Jon. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power. New York: Random House, 2012.
‘Religious Liberty’, article, History page of the National Museum of American Jewish History website.
Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves”, Frontline, PBS.org
‘Timeline of Jefferson’s Life’. Monticello.org. Website of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.