A trip through freedom's hometown

In Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell is a symbol of both America's ideals and its failings.

By Burt Wolf
Published August 31, 2000 11:11PM (EDT)

The most visited tourist spot in Philadelphia is the Liberty Bell; No. 2 is the Franklin Mills Outlet Mall, which confirms my belief that our nation was founded on the freedom to shop.

In fact, Philadelphia got its start because of an invoice that was overdue. England's King Charles II owed 16,000 pounds to William Penn, but the king was a little short of cash, so he paid off the debt by giving Penn a huge tract of land in North America -- an area bigger than England.

Penn was an aristocrat, which the king liked, but he was also a Quaker, which the king didn't like. The Quakers were much too liberal for the king; they believed in freedom of religion, and thought that a government should represent the needs of all the people. Outrageous ideas!

Charles threw 10,000 Quakers into prison, Penn among them. So the opportunity to pay off a debt, and send Penn and the Quakers to a colony 3,000 miles away, seemed like a great idea. Penn could conduct his holy experiment so far away that the king would not be bothered.

Only one problem -- the ideas that came to Pennsylvania with the Quakers were the very ideas that formed the basis of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War. Some days, you just can't win.

Philadelphia was the capital of Penn's colony; what the brothers loved most was freedom, particularly freedom from England. In 1750, as part of the 50th anniversary of Pennsylvania's Charter of Privileges, a bell was ordered from England. The inscription around the crown reads, "Proclaim liberty through all the land to all the inhabitants thereof."

They hung the Liberty Bell in the Statehouse, which is now known as Independence Hall. The first time they rang it, it cracked, so they recast it. They tried to ring it again, and it cracked again. The point seemed to be that anybody who trusted England to give the colonies a fair shake had to be cracked.

Eventually a group of people who felt that way ended up in Independence Hall. They were delegates to the Continental Congress and had come from each of the 13 original colonies. On July 4, 1776, they adopted the Declaration of Independence, which led to our fight for freedom and made Philadelphia the capital of the United States.

But there was life in Philadelphia before the Revolution. Chris Klemek is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania working on his doctorate in history. Under the rubrick "Poor Richard's Walking Tours" he guides visitors through the history of the city. Slightly irreverent and thought-provoking, his tour is an interesting way to see Philadelphia.

Klemek pointed out that Penn was a radical guy, an aristocrat who converted to Quakerism and was constantly advancing revolutionary ideas. And as you walk through Philadelphia you can see the radical way that Penn laid out his town -- creating the first planned city in the modern world. In stark contrast to the London in which he was born and that he watched burn to the ground in 1666 because it was so dense and unplanned, Penn designed Philadelphia as a perfect open grid. He also decided that everyone who lived in his grid would be free to follow whatever religion attracted him in any way he saw fit -- a reaction against the persecution that Penn was subjected to as a Quaker in England. Philadelphia became the first truly diverse society in America.

By the eve of the Revolution Philadelphia was the largest city in the English-speaking world after London. And it was rich. There is no better illustration of the wealth that came to Philadelphia in this time than the Christ Church, built in the 1730s and '40s in grand high Georgian style. At the time of construction, it was the greatest building in North America. It is in extraordinary contrast to the austere, frugal Quaker meetinghouse, which embodied the ideals that Penn was trying to bring to his wholesome colony.

It was the very success of the colony that ultimately undermined many of Penn's ideals. The best example of this problem was slavery, which was at the heart of much of the wealth coming into Pennsylvania. As early as 1688, the Quakers were at the forefront of the anti-slavery movement and favored abolition.

By the middle of the 1700s, large segments of the population were dissatisfied with the colony's relationship to England and wanted out. The resulting movement was centered in Philadelphia; the plotting began in Carpenter's Hall, where radical ideas were discussed -- codified in Thomas Paine's "Common Sense," which said citizens could overthrow a government and challenge a millennial tradition of monarchy. They were plotting treason, planning to take on the most powerful army and navy in the world.

Just how radical was this revolution? It could easily be said that this was a conservative revolution that did not fundamentally restructure American society. These days the media is filled with stories dealing with the connection between money and politics as if it were something new, but few people realize that at the time of the revolution George Washington was the wealthiest man in America. Was he merely the 18th century equivalent of a Bill Gates leading a movement to have Seattle secede from the nation in response to a governmental antitrust case?

The illustrious documents produced in Philadelphia proclaim enlightenment and ideals of liberty and equality for all men. But tensions from Penn's time on just these issues continued for centuries. How did slavery exist in this ostensibly enlightened nation? Why didn't women vote? Why weren't Native Americans citizens? In the end these tensions make the Liberty Bell an ironic metaphor -- a flawed, cracked emblem of an unfinished revolution.

But there's life in Philadelphia after the Revolution. And this is where we need to talk about good old Ben Franklin, because all through the 1700s, Franklin was founding pathbreaking institutions for cultivating practical knowledge and skills. He set up America's first lending library, its first modern university, its first philosophical society, all unique institutions in America and all means to bringing Philadelphia to the vanguard of a second revolution: the Industrial Revolution.

Philadelphia became the center of the railroad industry and home to the Pennsylvania Railroad, the world's first billion-dollar corporation. It's also where John Wanamaker invented the modern department store. And from a tourist's point of view, the best part about Philadelphia is that no matter what you are looking at, the religious toleration of the 17th century, the political revolutions of the 18th century or the industrial revolutions of the 19th century, all the monuments are still standing. Philadelphia is the best place to come if you want to understand America.

Being the first city in North America to have a hospital and a medical school gave Philadelphia a serious interest in medical history, and one place to see that interest on display is the M|tter Museum. Perhaps its most unusual exhibition is a collection of 139 skulls, representing the people of Eastern and Central Europe. The museum acquired them in 1874 from an anatomist who used them to study the relationship between biology and destiny. He finally concluded that skull shape has nothing to do with destiny.

The M|tter is also home to the Jackson collection of foreign bodies, or objects swallowed or inhaled. Dr. Jackson was a pioneer in the field of broncho-esophagology who perfected instruments that could reach into people's air passages and remove things that they were choking on. He saved them in order to record the case history of each object and show other doctors, faced with a similar situation, what had worked. It's a teaching collection for fellow broncho-esophagologists.

Philadelphia has the largest collection of outdoor murals. They were put up as part of the Mural Arts Program, started in 1984 as a way to combat graffiti. The organizers thought that if they could take people who had been caught tagging walls and channel their energy into something more positive, it would be a way to change things around. Over 2,000 murals were put up; there have been very few instances of graffiti on those walls. The program offers an interesting tour of the works.

Not on most lists of sights to see in Philadelphia, but downtown and worth a visit, is the Masonic Temple, home of the Freemasons. The Freemasons are the world's oldest and largest fraternity, and many of the Founding Fathers belonged to the organization, including George Washington. There are free daily tours of their building.

Philadelphia has become the leading city for African-American tourism in the United States. Part of the reason is historic, but just as important is the role that African-American artists play in the city's present cultural life. A perfect example is Philadanco, a modern, contemporary dance company, founded by Joan Myers Brown.

The city also has an unusual blend of music and dance, which is only on display New Year's Day, when Philadelphia's New Year Shooters and Mummers Association holds its annual parade. Shooters got their name from Scandinavian settlers who came to this area in the 1600s and would fire their guns as part of their New Year's celebrations. The name for Mummers comes from Momus, the ancient Greek god of mockery. The French word mumeur is a disguised participant at a festival who makes fun of society. James Bland, an African-American composer of the 1800s, wrote "Oh, 'Dem Golden Slippers," the official song of the parade. And the official dance step is a cakewalk, a high strut with a backward tilt.

The Reading Terminal Market has supplied the cooks of Philadelphia with excellent products for over 100 years, but it is also a good market for tourists. Try the soft pretzels, which are served with mustard; hoagies, which were developed to celebrate the first presentation in Philadelphia of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta; and cheese steaks, which have become a signature food in the history of Philadelphia gastronomy.

Burt Wolf

Burt Wolf's TV show, "Travels & Traditions II," appears on almost 300 public-television stations weekly. His column appears every Wednesday in Salon. For more columns, visit his archive. He also writes regularly about food and cooking equipment for Burt Wolf.com.


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