Many coins from passersby top the tombstone for Benjamin Franklin at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia. We still respect this country’s founding father and inventor of electricity to bifocals, daylight savings time to catheters.
Fewer hunt for Francis Hopkinson, Dr. Benjamin Rush, George Ross or Joseph Hewes, whose burial plots are in the same compact cemetery. Like Franklin, they formed and signed the Declaration of Independence, but only small flags mark their final resting spots.
What and who we choose to praise, demonize and forget sometimes changes as time passes. The City of Brotherly Love is a good reminder, and I find it especially fascinating during this turbulent presidential election season.
“History is not neat,” says signage near the Liberty Bell. “It is complicated and messy. It is about people, places and events that are both admirable and deplorable.”
We tend to forget that it took deep courage, discourse and personal risk for forefathers to declare, in writing, their independence from Great Britain. Between Thomas Jefferson’s first draft and the final document were at least 80 edits. He was devastated by the level of alterations, said our guide at Independence Hall, the U.S. landmark older than our nation.
We don’t fully appreciate the complicated debates and need for compromise that turned 13 colonies into one nation, and the fact that some issues – such as slavery – were too hot to address or acknowledge. By 1787, when the U.S. Constitution was created in Philly, one in five people in our young country was a slave.
That crack in the Liberty Bell won’t get fixed because it is an ageless symbol of hard-fought and ongoing battles to define values, priorities and freedoms. We stay united, so far, despite our differences – but we have expressed profound differences and disgust with each other from the beginning.
About 500 yards north of the iconic bell, the National Constitution Center observes that the notion of governance bound by a written constitution was unusual in the 1780s. Unprecedented was our “we, the people” approach – power and responsibility divided among leaders selected by average people, the voters.
“How to make an independent, energetic executive who wouldn’t amass too much power” was a key Constitutional Convention challenge in 1787, and we hope our system of checks and balances remains both effective and efficient. We know it has seldom been easy.
A temporary exhibit, “Headed to the White House,” begins with this: The process of running for president is long and messy. A “Fantasy Election” computer game pits random, post-1945 presidents as opponents. Your “vote” for, say, Nixon vs. Carter is based on their unidentified quotes on 10 issues – civil rights to child care. Separating Democrat and Republican views isn’t as easy as you might think.
Trash talk, voter pressure and fickleness tend to repeat themselves. Consider military hero William Henry Harrison, raised in a wealthy family but portrayed as an average guy. His Whig Party nicknamed incumbent Martin Van Buren as “Van Ruin” because he did not prevent or resolve the Panic of 1837 financial crisis.
“Harrison’s supporters doled out hard cider and whiskey to thousands at rallies and picnics while never revealing what their candidate’s views actually were on any important subject,” the exhibit noted.
Although the challenger won, the adage “be careful what you wish for” applies.
Harrison set history in two ways. His Inauguration Day speech was the longest on record (8,445 words), and the new president wore no coat while delivering it. His term of office was the shortest: one month, because pneumonia killed him.
Presidential candidates still risk health, sanity and stamina during their campaigns. “Headed to the White House” estimates they shake up to 50 hands a minute and thousands in a day. It is one of the few traditions that hasn’t caused much cackling, outside of tweets about the lack of a handshake before the most recent presidential debate.
“Benjamin Harrison’s (handshake) was said to be ‘like a wilted petunia’ and Woodrow Wilson’s like ‘a ten-cent pickled mackerel’, ” media concluded during earlier eras.
Although I came to Philadelphia looking for reassurance through historic tales of resilience, it sure didn’t hurt to find a little levity.
For more about historic and other attractions in Philadelphia, consult visitphilly.com, 215-599-0776.
Besides historic landmarks, the city is known for its devotion to art. My top five picks:
Gallery after gallery at The Barnes Foundation is filled with works by the masters. That includes 181 by Renoir, 69 by Cézanne and 59 by Matisse. Add Picasso, Degas, Seurat and many more. barnesfoundation.org, 215-278-7000
The Rodin Museum collection of the sculptor’s works is the biggest outside of France. Indoors and in gardens are at least 140 bronze, marble and plaster creations. “The Thinker,” outdoors, is a replica but inside is a smaller original of the statue. rodinmuseum.org, 215-763-8100
Philadelphia Museum of Art is the country’s oldest art museum and among the largest. Almost as well-known is the outdoor “Rocky” statue and 72 stone entrance steps, which actor Sylvester Stallone ran up in the 1976 movie. Now average people make the run, too, and finish with a victory fist. philamuseum.org, 215-763-8100
Lovers of art made with found objects should visit the Magic Gardens, which covers one-half block on eclectic South Street. Isaiah Zagar’s work incorporates bicycle wheels, bottles, mirror shards and numerous other materials. phillymagicgardens.org, 215-733-0390
Count The Clothespin among the city’s most lofty pieces of public art. The Claes Oldenburg work is 40 years old, 45 feet tall and made of weathered steel. Locals refer to it as a place to air dirty laundry because the sculpture is near City Hall, built in 1901 and the nation’s largest. associationforpublicart.org, 215-546-7550