Independence Hall in American Memory
By Charlene Mires. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002; 350 pp., illustrations, notes, index; cloth $34.95.
Independence Hall in downtown Philadelphia is—without question—one of the most revered places in this country, an American icon. Site of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and scene of the Constitutional Convention, Independence Hall was the stage extraordinaire for the larger-than-life personalities of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin; and is known to all Americans as the birthplace of American freedom.
In this wonderful and insightful book, Charlene Mires argues that these aspects of the building's history, while central to the history of the Nation's founding, obscure the larger and just as relevant story of Independence Hall beyond 1787. "To see Independence Hall as a place with a long history in an American city does not diminish its significance," she argues, "but rather enhances it." The complete history of the Pennsylvania State House, as the building was known throughout the 18th century, not only enhances our sense of the past but, more importantly, illuminates Independence Hall as a "place where successive generations have struggled to define the essence of American national identity."
Independence Hall is one of those books that speaks to the core of what drives preservation and interpretation not only in the National Park Service but throughout the preservation community. Preservation is fundamentally about choices—choices about what gets preserved, how buildings are preserved, what stories are told, which groups are perceived as the primary audience, and whether the stories confirm existing beliefs or challenge visitors to think differently about what they think that they know. Many historic places, including many within the National Park System, have chosen to present a story of consensus and not of conflict. Mires believes that the complexity of the past must be reflected in these presentations to be useful to the present. In particular, she sees an Independence Hall that is "very crowded with history, memory, and the struggles of constructing and preserving a nation."
In our desire to focus on Independence Hall as the "birthplace of freedom," we have, according to Mires, shadowed and, in many instances, ignored stories that relate to and even enhance the grand deliberations of the Founding Fathers. However, still more and very relevant stories abound. Post-1787 United States history revolved around the issues of slavery and the growing dichotomy between the bold statements regarding freedom found in the Declaration of Independence and the recognition of slavery in the Constitution. The tension between the two documents provides rich material to examine the meanings of freedom among inheritors of the American Revolution.
For example, the 1780 session of the Pennsylvania Assembly, held in the Pennsylvania State House, passed America's first law ordering the abolishment of slavery. Although it was a gradual emancipation law, Pennsylvania is recognized as the first of the Northern States to take this step.(1) In 1793, the United States Congress, deliberating in the State House, passed the first Fugitive Slave Law presaging the more controversial act by the same name of 1850. During the 1840s, Pennsylvania abolitionists used the contradictions represented by Independence Hall to stage an anti-slavery rally in Independence Square. At the event, the abolitionist speaker, Frederick Douglass, addressed the striking contrasts between the image of Independence Hall and the persistence of slavery in the South.
The growing issue of constitutionally defined freedom and slavery returned to Independence Hall the following decade in the U.S. District Court on the second floor. During this period, the court heard several cases resulting from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. The most celebrated of these was the trial of the Christiana defendants. Attempting to thwart the capture of a runaway slave, a crowd of blacks and whites in Christiana, Pennsylvania, resisted and killed the pursuing slave owner. The 1851 trial of 33 blacks and 5 whites on charges of treason for interfering with the Fugitive Slave Act drew national attention and provided attorneys on both sides with opportunities to connect the offense with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. All of the defendants were found not guilty. According to Mires, this rich history should be included in the educational presentations of Independence Hall.
All of these stories, and many more in Independence Hall, complement the dominant 18th-century story of independence and, more importantly, illustrate that independence and liberty, once declared, were debated and contested by post-Revolutionary generations. Indeed, this book aggressively engages the important concept of memory as a contested landscape. The idea of contesting public memory depends on the recognition that many versions of the past conflict with each other. The preservation of buildings presents preservationists not only with choices regarding treatment, but also with the stories to be told. Such decisions revolve around remembering and forgetting stories of the past. Mires reminds us that remembering and forgetting are "fundamental in the formation of individual and collective identities."
Through complicated dynamics, societies choose which aspects of their past should be remembered and which forgotten. Independence Hall, she concludes, has powerful stories to tell—stories of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, to be sure, but stories yet untold of successive generations of Americans constructing a Nation "through the memory-work of commemoration, preservation, and dissent." Historic buildings are places of history, but they are also, Mires observes, "places of memory where we continually interact with the past and sustain our ideas of what it means to be a nation."
While focused on the preservation, commemoration, and interpretation of a very important remnant of the American past, Independence Hall is relevant to cultural resources professionals everywhere. Mires' work creates an important framework for the business of preservation and how the choices that we make affect public perceptions of the past and the development of society. This book is required reading for all of us engaged in the work that we call historic preservation.
Dwight T. Pitcaithley
National Park Service
1. While Pennsylvania gets credit for being the first state to outlaw slavery, the territory of Vermont prohibited slavery in 1777.