The Cradle of the Nation
The City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, is a great American city, and not only because the Eagles, Flyers, and Phillies play there.
I spent a lot of time there as a kid. Growing up in northern Delaware, Philly was where many of our field trips often led.
We took trips to the great zoo along the Schuykill River, the Art Museum, and best of all, the Franklin Institute. My childhood memories are filled with walking through the large human heart, the vibration of fibrillation filling my small ears.
Another common destination was Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell. In my youth, they shared space on the west side of Chestnut Street. Today, the Bell is housed in its own snazzy digs across the street.
This past week, a Christmas holiday trip, to accompany my son Rick to see The Phantom of the Opera national touring company at the Forrest Theater, led me back up Interstate 95.
We had a full day to sightsee and indulge in a "cheez-wid," which anyone schooled in Philly lore knows is how you order a cheese steak with fried onions. A visit to Philadelphia without indulging in one of these gloppy slices of heaven is a waste of time. There is even a proscribed method to eating a real Philly cheese steak.
The knowledgeable consumer grasps the roll, still partly encased in wax paper, with both hands. Then, you stick you posterior out, creating a gap into which can drip the residue of conspicuous consumption that you are unable to fit into your mouth. In so doing, you spare yourself the embarrassment of returning to work with cheese steak dribble down the front of your shirt or blouse. It may not be very dignified, but when is a celebration of unbridled gluttony ever dignified?
Our hotel was located in Center City, a block and a half from the theater. Following breakfast, we wandered eight blocks east to the area known as Independence Mall, intent on reconnecting with history.
To say that we reconnected would be a serious understatement. A more accurate description might be reinvigorated.
The National Park Service, without question my favorite federal agency, has put together nothing less than an inspiring, moving, and solemn three block trip into the heart of what makes us who we are.
It seems that you're walking beside Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington as you climb the steps of the old Pennsylvania State House building. Entering the lobby, a right turn takes you into the old Court Chamber, styled after an English courtroom. You can easily picture the judges, powdered wigs perched atop their heads, sitting high above the lawyers and jurors.
The largest area of the room was reserved for the public, recognizing that the best way to insure a fair trial was to encourage citizens to witness the administration of justice.
Across the lobby was the Assembly Hall, site of the two most important gatherings in the history of our nation. To stand in this room, to occupy the same physical space as the men who created both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution is a truly humbling and moving experience.
Our Park Service tour guide informed us that over 60% of the wood in the building was original, and that the "rising sun" chair at the front of the room was the actual chair occupied by George Washington as he presided over the Constitutional Convention.
The room seems so small, so humble and minor when compared to the amazing and world-changing ideas that sprang from it. Likewise, the education and life experiences of the framers seems to pale in contrast to the brilliance and significance of their work product.
Benjamin Franklin, one our nation's most brilliant thinkers and visionary strategists, had but 2 years of formal education to fall back upon.
Everyone who longs to reconnect with the ideals that fostered the drafting of the Constitution should also visit the National Constitution Center. The center anchors one end of the mall, opposite Independence Hall, and employs technology and interactive displays to remind us of who we are and from where we've come.
An actor delivers one of the most powerful dramatic presentations I have ever witnessed. In the 25-minute performance, accompanied by lights and sound, the actor describes the pressures on the founding fathers, the risks that faced the fledgling federal government, and the historical tests to this great experiment called a constitutional republic.
A reflective screen lowers to the floor, encircling the actor who remains partly visible, and images from our nation's rich history fill the amphitheater.
Franklin Roosevelt's assurance that collectively we'd survive the Great Depression, John Kennedy's space challenge, and Ronald Reagan's exhortation to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall help carry the story of the Constitution into the present day.
As you depart the theater, you exit up into the body of the center, a large circular exhibit area. The exhibits are amazing, with historical artifacts combining with modern computer technology to thrill a grandparent and grandchild simultaneously.
You can take the oath of office for the presidency, and while it seems that you're standing alone behind a podium with the presidential seal, the blue screen backdrop allows the full imagery of the west front of the Capitol to be portrayed on a large projection screen far above you.
You can don a robe and sit on a replica of the Supreme Court bench, casting your own ruling in a number of important cases brought before the court. Another display allows you to vote for your favorite president on a touch screen voting system.
The final exhibit directs visitors into a large, brightly lit room. Arrayed around the space are life-size bronze statues of the members of the Constitutional Convention, placed around the room in a manner that reflects where they were and what they might actually be doing. Washington occupies the center space, larger in both a figurative and literal sense. You can almost feel his influence over the chamber. Franklin sits at a desk, reflecting the fact that his health had already deteriorated to the point that he had to be carried in and out of the hall.
Two interesting observations: Jacob Broome, a signer from my home state of Delaware, is depicted hunched over, starting down at the floor. I don't know if Mr. Broome was a humble or shy man, but his pose is a result of the fact that there is no portrait known to exist of his face. In paintings of the convention, Broome is often painted in as the figure bent over Washington's desk, diligently affixing his signature, his back turned to the viewer.
The most interesting statues are the three conventioneers who refused to sign the finished Constitution, fearing the power of a central federal government. They are arrayed at the back of the room, standing together at a table looking appropriately skeptical of the hubbub that surrounds them.
As I prepare to head to Annapolis to begin the work of the 423rd Maryland General Assembly, I do so with a renewed sense of what this all means, and my role as a citizen legislator; preserving, protecting, and defending this blessed constitutional republic of ours. I would urge you consider this trip to the cradle of our nation, as the sense of renewed faith and appreciation for the enormity of the events that occurred there will remind you why it matters to be called an American.