"We have it in our power to begin the world again."
- Thomas Paine, writing in "Common Sense," published Jan. 9, 1776, in Philadelphia.
"Everything in America flows from what happened in Philadelphia."
- Pennsylvania Gov. Edward G. Rendell, speaking in Philadelphia, May 1, 2003.
PHILADELPHIA - On a wooded site between the Delaware River on the east and the Schuylkill River on the west, William Penn in 1682 laid out the street grid of a new town in this New World. It measured about 2 miles between the rivers and about a mile from north to south. Philadelphia, as Penn named this place, was to be the capital of the colony of Pennsylvania.
This colony was founded on religious freedom, at a time when the Puritans of the Massachusetts colony were hanging Quakers. The town cut from the forest prospered, boasting about 2,000 buildings by 1774, when colonists along the Atlantic Seaboard decided to take a stand against their English sovereign's repressive rule.
Because Philadelphia was toward the center of the British territory, elected representatives from 12 colonies were sent here in September 1774 to sit as the Continental Congress. (Georgians could not reach consensus on opposing England's colonial laws.)
The delegates discussed options until late October, then sent their petition of grievances to Parliament and adjourned. But they agreed to reconvene the following spring if their complaints had not been satisfied.
Not used to being told by their colonies how to govern, nor willing to accede to them, members of Parliament generally rejected the Americans' petition. Thus, on May 10, 1775, the Second Continental Congress opened.
Those sessions were moved from Carpenters Hall, a tradesmen's meeting place, to the larger State House, which served all three branches of Pennsylvania colonial government.
Convened in the spacious chamber used by the Assembly - the legislature - the delegates elected John Hancock of Massachusetts as their president.
Their debates about colony vs. crown, subject vs. sovereign, lasted more than a year. On April 8, 1776, members of the local militia stormed into the colony's courtroom, just across the hall from the Assembly room, and pulled from its pumpkin-colored walls the royal coat of arms. They dragged it through the streets before setting fire to it.
That was an act of treason. But of more importance were the skirmishes taking place for months throughout the colonies between militias, plus the Continental army and navy forces, and King George's soldiers and sailors - the mightiest fighting machine in the world.
Despite this tension, Congress' delegates refused to rush to a decision. But that moment came, in that high-ceilinged room, on June 11.
"On that day," announces one of the National Park Service rangers who now lead 15-minute tours of what we call Independence Hall, "the delegates sitting in this room appointed a committee to write their declaration."
"They called on Mr. John Adams, of Massachusetts," says the ranger, suddenly pointing with her right arm to one of the period desks that fill most of the room. "And you, Mr. Benjamin Franklin, of this city of Philadelphia" - her left hand swings toward another desk - "and Mr. Philip Livingston, of New York, and Mr. Roger Sherman, of Connecticut.
"And Mr. Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia."
Before arriving in Philadelphia, Jefferson had sent ahead a presentation of his thoughts on self-governance. This was widely published, and Jefferson - educated in the law, fluent in five languages - was named by the committee to turn the principles of the Continental Congress into words on paper. Jefferson was 33 years old.
Working in two rented rooms just two blocks from the State House, Jefferson took 17 days to craft the statement explaining, to both Americans and King George, their rebellion.
Adams and Franklin suggested changes, and on June 28, 1776, the committee presented this paper to the Congress.
More changes were made until, on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress endorsed the document. Hancock, as president of the Congress, was first to sign, in a large signature now well-known. "The British ministry can read that name without spectacles," he declared.
Copies of this Declaration of Independence were sent to the colonies, to be read to the citizens. And on July 8, Col. John Nixon stood on the steps of what until recently had merely been his colony's governmental administration building and read to his fellow Philadelphians:
"When in the course of human events . . ."
"We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall hang separately."
- Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia, Aug. 2, 1776.
You can see a photocopy of the actual document Nixon held, in the west wing of Independence Hall. And next to that paper is a page from delegate Elbridge Gerry's copy of the Articles of Confederation. They were ratified March 1, 1781, by delegates who had hammered them out in that same chamber in Independence Hall.
The Articles were the new nation's first set of governmental principles, under which it operated until 1789.
The Articles gave each state, not the federal government, most powers of authority. They did not provide for either a president or a set of national courts. Instead the new nation was to function as "a firm league of friendship, with each state retaining its sovereignty, freedom and independence."
This proved unworkable. So in May 1787, delegates from the states were sent once again to the Assembly Room of Independence Hall. Present were the venerable Franklin, now 81, and Alexander Hamilton, just 30.
This set of delegates, presided over by George Washington, all but scrapped the Articles, coming up instead with the Constitution. Three delegates refused to ratify this document but on Sept, 17, 1787, the other 39 delegates did.
You can now see Washington's final copy of the document, sent to him essentially for proofreading and any last-minute suggestions, in the glass case, next to the Articles of Confederation.
A unique place is saved
In one large room, off and on over the course of 12 years and four months, the United States of America was conceived and its governing principles were formed and refined. Independence Hall is yours to visit, and to maybe get goosebumps in, as a Park Service ranger spreads his or her arms and points to first one desk and then another, calling out those names.
Yet the building itself almost was demolished more than a century ago.
It was built between 1732 and 1753, to house the colonial government. By 1781, its wooden clock tower had rotted and was taken down, so when the delegates arrived to debate the Articles and the Constitution, they did not see the handsome, red-brick structure as it now appears. The current tower was added in 1828.
In 1799, the state capital was moved to Harrisburg, and the building ultimately served as Philadelphia's City Hall. By 1870, officials wanted more space, and a new building, for City Hall. The location of Independence Hall, just five blocks from the Delaware River, still seemed like the right location, but the existing building would have to be torn down to make room.
"No one was thinking of historic preservation until after the Civil War," explains Ranger Shecky Perlman. The old brick structure held little tangible value, and there was no federal agency preserving historic artifacts, Perlman noted.
What's more, Philadelphia had never suffered an earthquake or a major fire, so there were thousands of old buildings still standing in Penn's original grid.
But preservationists finally stepped in to save this particular building.
A new historic mall
In the spirit of elevating our heritage, major construction is under way for an imposing new home for the Liberty Bell, just across the street from Independence Hall, and for an imaginative, high-tech temple to the Constitution.
Now, visitors see the Liberty Bell in a temporary facility. Sometime this fall, the $12.6-million Liberty Bell Center will open. The bell will be placed so that visitors view it with Independence Hall as the main backdrop, with most of the modern cityscape thoughtfully obscured.
One block to the north, in what will become Philadelphia's version of Washington's National Mall, sits the spacious Independence Visitor Center. This is where visitors get their free, but required, tickets for the timed tours of Independence Hall. Displays, touch screens and brief films provide historic background.
In the next block north - just two blocks from Independence Hall - workers are racing to meet the scheduled July 4 opening of the National Constitution Center. It promises to be a special place:
Located in nearly 68,000 square feet will be about 100 interactive exhibits and a 350-seat theater that is the venue for a 12-minute multimedia presentation on a 360-degree screen. Visitors will move through three concentric circles of "The American Experience," with interactive components and the text of the Constitution printed on a glass wall that is 16 feet tall and 450 feet long.
Participants can vote for their favorite president, see a mock telecast of themselves standing on the steps of the Capitol and taking the Presidential Oath of Office, even send e-mail to their members of Congress.
The Constitution Center's goal is to create "a learning experience" about that document and the Bill of Rights that will inform and inspire guests, so that they "enter as visitors and leave as citizens."
If you go
Do. Do go that is, to savor the thrill that comes from standing in a place where the history of the world was changed. Here, inspired people of principle faced being branded as traitors, faced even death, so that they could show their countrymen the way to seek "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
While you are wandering about Independence National Historical Park, chat with the rangers. Rangers generally are some of the most knowledgeable, most dedicated federal employees and are eager to share their knowledge of history.
When I stopped by the Visitor Center this month to get my timed tour ticket for Independence Hall, Supervisory Park Ranger Mary Jenkins - no relation - happened to be strolling behind the counter. Her enthusiasm was tempered only by her concern that I knew to ask the right questions to make the best use of my time.
And ask the rangers where else they have been posted in their careers. They are liable to provide enough inside information to inspire you to take a trip elsewhere in the United States.
Don't be afraid to take younger children to the Historic Park. The Park Service hands out a free, four-page Revolutionary Ranger Activity Book filled with games, trivia and even a reward for using the pamphlet.
Another attraction children are likely to enjoy is the Lights of Liberty Show, a sound-and-light, nighttime stroll through the historic area. At five stops, still and moving color images are projected up to five stories high, on the sides of buildings, as participants listen on headsets to the surround-sound narration and special orchestral music.
Actors such as Ossie Davis, Claire Bloom and Charlton Heston become the voices of early patriots. Even boisterous teenagers are intrigued enough to follow the events. And when the recorded voice shouts, "Look to the rear!" be ready for a surprise.
ADMISSION PROCEDURE: There is no fee to tour Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell or the other federal sites in the Independence National Historical Park. But you must get a ticket for the timed tours of the Hall, by stopping at the Independence Visitor Center, at Sixth and Market streets.
Visitors can request tickets for same-day admission, starting at 8:30 a.m., from March 1 to Oct. 31. On the busiest days in the summer, tickets are often gone by 1 p.m.
Tickets are not needed the rest of the year except for the Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend (but not on Thanksgiving Day), and the week between Christmas and New Year's Day (Dec. 26-31). Tickets will not be issued on Christmas or New Year's Day.
Each visitor can request up to six tickets at the ticket desk. The other members in the group are not required to be in the center when the tickets are picked up. Tickets may be reserved as early as 12 months before the visit through the reservation system operated by the Spherix Corp. For these advance tickets, call toll-free 1-800-967-2283 from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, or go to http://reservations.nps.gov
For these reservations, there is a $1.50 charge per ticket. For each paid reservation, one free ticket can be reserved for a child 2 or younger. The charge is made even for those holding the Golden Eagle Passport or National Park Pass.
The Visitor Center is open 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; parking is available at a garage beneath the center.
The Liberty Bell can be viewed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; rangers give talks about the bell every 10 minutes.
The city has an excellent new Web site, called Culture Files, with up-to-date information on hundreds of area museums, historic sites and other tourism attractions, in 13 categories. There also are event calendars, maps, itinerary suggestions and a helpful trip planner. Go to www.gophila.com/culturefiles/ The National Constitution Center is at 525 Arch St., between Fifth and Sixth streets. Admission will be $5 for adults, $4 for seniors and children 12 and younger. Call 215 923-0004; www.constitutioncenter.org Lights of Liberty is a 45-minute tour conducted from March to October. Days and hours vary, and weeknights are usually less crowded. Fees are $17.76 for adults, $12 for children 6-12, $16 for seniors and students. Call toll-free 1-877-462-1776; www.lightsofliberty.org