©2015, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.
Center City Philadelphia, circa 1973...
When I first visited Philadelphia, I was not yet a teenager and we had not yet reached our nation's Bicentennial. The city, reached via a train ride on Amtrak (itself not much more than a toddler) seemed to be a million miles away, an impression not dissuaded by my parents. We had a room in a high-rise hotel on Fourth and Arch Streets, just steps from Independence Mall just as advertised. It was summertime and it was pretty warm.
While the United States Mint, the Betsy Ross House and other destinations were quite interesting, one of the highlights of the trip was the tour of Independence Hall. Having seen the film 1776 at least twice already, upon entering I remarked excitedly that it was "just like the movie!" Of course, in fact the reverse was the case; the sets were built to look just like the rooms in the famous building. Climbing the stairs I could hear Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—or more correctly, the actors who portrayed them: Howard DaSilva, Ken Howard and William Daniels-- debating which animal would become the national bird, or arguing with others which of them would be tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence. We saw the chair that had the sun carved into it and I recalled the remark that it was indeed a rising and not a setting sun, said by Franklin during the Constitutional Convention while he himself was in the twilight of his own life.
Out the back door of Independence Hall was a park, site of other scenes in 1776, most memorably for me the sequence in which Richard Henry Lee offered to ride to Virginia to secure the "resolution for independency," as part of a memorable musical number during which Adams declared, "Incredible! We're free, and he hasn't even left yet!" For us, though, the park was the site of what was called a "Sound and Light" show in which the drama of the struggle for independence was played out. I thought I recognized some of the same voices that I had heard in 1776. The show took place after sunset, which in the summer meant it went well past my usual bedtime. I remember being both very tired and quite exhilarated at the same time when the show ended. The next day we would walk through the park again on the way to other places to visit, but the memory of the Sound and Light Show was already permanently imprinted on my memory.
And then there was the Liberty Bell. Hung on its original yoke, permanently on display within the safe confines of the ground floor of Independence Hall itself, cracks, imperfections, and all, it was the focal point of the tour of the building once called the Pennsylvania State House. And it was an irresistible magnet to those children who, or course, wanted to touch it. I don't recall whether I actually did, but photos of the display area suggest that it was at least possible.
Not any more.
Center City Philadelphia, circa 2010...
Having arrived earlier in the afternoon than I expected for the meeeting I was to attend in the next day, I decided that instead of performing relatively unproductive activities in the confines of the suburban brand-name business-traveler-oriented hotel, I would venture into Philadelphia itself, via commuter train available from a station a short walking distance away. I had never been on this particular line, now operated by SEPTA but once part of the Reading Railroad, which once had a spiderweb of lines radiating from its spectacular Terminal. The terminal had long since been repurposed and the utilitarian station which replaced it was not far from Independence Mall.
In preparation for America's Bicentennial and over the objections of many Philadelphians, the Liberty Bell had been relocated from the ground floor of Independence Hall, first to the Liberty Bell Pavilion where I saw it several more times and then to the larger Liberty Bell Center, where our children had their first chance to see, but not touch, the icon. That was no longer allowed, and the bell had been hung out of reach of visitors. Look, but don't touch. A long way from when the Liberty Bell had gone "on tour," including via a special train which went coast to coast and back and was seen by ten million people along the way… and that's not counting the crowds at the Panama-Pacific Exposition who viewed it, or kissed it. It's hard to blame the caretakers of the bell for protecting it from souvenir hunters. One estimate calculated that one percent of the bell was "lost" during the trips between 1885 and 1909. After its nationwide train ride, the bell never left Philadelphia again. But the reason for its being placed out of reach, behind metal detectors and security screening, and with guards on either side, had nothing to do with ordinary citizens looking for a memento.
That event occurred on April 6, 2001 when a man who had come for the usual tour and talk attacked the Liberty Bell with a modified sledgehammer. He didn't do much damage to the bell itself—that was quickly repaired—but access to the icon was rethought. A spokesperson at the time was quoted as saying that the National Park Service would "certainly be reviewing public access to the bell in the future. Providing access to the bell," he explained, "and protecting its security, is one of those difficult balances we have to reach."
Only one hundred and fifty-eight days later, a lot more needed to be rethought. And it certainly was.
The Liberty Bell Center was certainly impressive. There was even a short film called Independence which was directed by John Huston and featured Ken Howard reprising his role as Thomas Jefferson in 1776. I had just enough time to watch that and take a quick look at the exhibits and the Liberty Bell itself before the Center closed for the evening. No worries, I thought, I'll just go over to Independence Hall. I knew from my previous visit with my own children that it had already closed, and required tickets for admission anyway, but there would be no issue having a look at the outside.
Well, yes, there was.
As I approached the historic building from the Center I immediately noticed that not only was the entrance barred, which I expected, but so was access to the entire side of Chestnut Street on which it fronted. At several key points there were military guards with the largest automatic weapons I had ever seen, who looked very much like their orders were to Shoot First and Ask Questions Later. I knew why they were there, just like I know why Transportation Security Administration has a major presence in American airports and why it's much harder to cross the border from the United States to Canada. And I had no issue with the people who were carefully guarding Independence Hall—they, like the TSA and the Border Patrol, were just doing their jobs. I frequently make that point to them directly by thanking them for being there and helping to keep us safe, which is usually appreciated. Even from a prudent distance away from Independence Hall, I felt I could not dare motion to or call out my appreciation to these military personnel- they meant business.
Well, then, perhaps I could go around to the other side of the Hall and revisit the garden where, decades before, the Sound and Light Show made a permanent impression on a certain ten-year-old. I carefully crossed to the other side of South Sixth Street, avoiding any incursion on the No Walk Zone around Independence Hall, walked halfway down the block to about the corner of Sansom Street and then crossed South Sixth. That would be one of the entrances to the garden. I could even hear John Adams, well, William Daniels, in my head, proclaiming once again, "We're free, and he hasn't even left yet!"
But that was not to be either. While some of that area was open, it was nearly empty of pedestrians, and that part of the garden where my family was seated one summer evening to learn about our country's beginning was also cordoned off and guarded. There was one other man strolling through the park, and I guess he noticed me looking longingly at the place that brought back so many memories. I said, "When I was this tall my parents took me here," and instantly regretted it, as he returned more a look of suspicion than of acknowledgement. I didn't want to be on the receiving end of "See Something, Say Something," so I quickly exited the garden in the opposite direction and made my way out of the Independence National Historical Park. While I had to accept that times had changed since my first visit to Philadelphia, I couldn't help but wonder if the Founding Fathers, who had mutually pledged their Lives, their Fortunes and their Sacred Honor, would be questioning who had really won the war after all.