Philadelphia is a city brimming with emotion. Here the history of our country still lives, and this feeling can overwhelm anyone who visits. From the Revolution to the Civil War and down to today, this city has been the stage for the American drama. As we pursue the ideals of liberty and equality, especially as the 250th anniversary of the United States’s birth approaches, Philadelphia is a model for cherishing, preserving, and teaching these ideals, and it shows us why place matters.

On February 22, 1861, Abraham Lincoln stood in front of Independence Hall of the verge of civil war; his task that day was simple: raise the American flag at the spot where the nation was born. He began his speech with his patented humility, a humility sprinkled with patriotism and a devotion to sustaining the republican experiment. He began, “I am filled with deep emotion at finding myself standing here, in this place, where were collected together the wisdom, the patriotism, the devotion to principle, from which sprang the institutions under which we live.”

Lincoln came here as part of his inaugural trip to Washington as president-elect. By the time Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia, eight southern states had seceded from the United States of America. It was one of the darkest moments of crisis our nation has ever faced.

The feeling of being overwhelmed that Lincoln felt then, and which we can still feel today, comes from deep-seated patriotism and devotion to principles that created our nation. Being here in this place, you can tell that without Philadelphia, we may not in fact have a United States.

Yet Philadelphia is also a wellspring of questions, many of them irresolvably fraught

As the birthplace of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, Philadelphia can convey the gravity of those sentiments Lincoln spoke of in his address.

These sentiments brought forth revolutions of many kinds. A revolt between colonies and the imperial center is the most obvious. When our founders met in Independence Hall, they were in many ways signing their death warrants. They were revolting against those who they believed violated their liberties. And while those violations were initially coded as the rights of British subjects, over the course of the Revolutionary War, Americans began viewing themselves as citizens in what became a fledgling republic.

The Constitutional Convention held in Independence Hall in 1787 meant coming to terms with the implications of the Revolution. Who exactly was a citizen when the guns fell silent? In Philadelphia, the Framers confronted the radicalism of the revolution while trying to maintain continuity within the colonial social order. The strivings of those in attendance hinged on one word: Union.

But what did that Union mean in 1789? Fractious interstate squabbles, to say nothing of the arguments between the founders, revealed to all, then and now, that we ought not forget the words that preceded Union, “to form a more perfect.” Did the Founders espouse a utopian scheme with the word “perfect”? No, but they certainly hoped that their efforts would unite the new states, their mutual interests and potential flourishing as a republic.

Yes, part of that perfection meant scrapping the Articles of Confederation and starting anew. But the true attempt to form a more perfect Union lay not within the founders or their generation: the attempt and pursuit of our founding ideals always rests with us, the living.

Lincoln often noted that the toils of those who fought for independence were monumental. He even wondered if those sacrifices were worth it, as he watched the collapse of that same Union. The liberty imbued in our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, was to serve as a beacon of hope for future Americans and, if we take Lincoln at his word, everyone on earth who sought life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The tensions within this city mirror those in other cities across the nation, both then and now. Philadelphia hosted violent street spectacles throughout the antebellum period. Massive riots rocked the city in the 1830s, with White Philadelphians attacking Black Philadelphians, burning their places of worship, and ransacking their homes. In 1838, abolitionists raised thousands of dollars to build Pennsylvania Hall, where they and other reformers could devote themselves to furthering the cause of freedom. Rioters urged on by proslavery elements in the city posted placards declaring race-mixing within Pennsylvania hall; rioters torched the building within days of its opening.

An 1842 temperance procession down Philadelphia’s Lombard Street ended in infamy when the 1,000 Black Philadelphians leading the march were attacked by Irish immigrants. The Irish then set their sights on Black Philadelphia, randomly assaulting men, women, and children, setting fire to their homes.

The city was on fire precisely because of the promises made by the Founders and the documents that they wrote. The riots were part of a never-ending struggle to interpret and realize those promises. In this way, Philadelphians sought redemption through their memories of this place as the site of our founding.

Lincoln said that he would rather be assassinated than allow for the principles of our great nation to go into the dustbin of history. And as we all know, Lincoln did die for those principles of equality and liberty that we all cherish as inheritors of the founding generation.

Bloodshed and street fights in Philadelphia prior to the Civil War encapsulated that conflict. Freedom and slavery were on full display, with many Philadelphians barely raising their eyes when they witnessed local law enforcement dragging Black Americans accused of being runaways to the “Old Statehouse.” This “Old Statehouse” was in fact Independence Hall, the hallowed place where the Founders signed the Declaration and Constitution. Tragically, Independence Hall also featured dozens of other signings that flew in the face of the principles enshrined in our founding documents: these signings came in the form of removal certificates given to slavecatchers, slaveowners, and kidnappers, which in turn ripped Black families apart by sending them into a life of bondage. This uncomfortable tension within Independence Hall between our founding principles and human enslavement crystallized Philadelphia’s importance to the same Union Lincoln heralded in 1861.

Making matters worse, Philadelphia’s proximity to the slave states bolstered its status as what one historian called the “most northern of southern cities,” as did its ties to southern slaveowners, which included intermarriage between elites and the ever-increasing growth of textile mills predicated on southern cotton.

All these factors made the city a ripe hunting ground for slavecatchers, slaveowners, and kidnappers. Black freedom was precarious—not unlike the precious freedom our founders lived through when they affixed their names to the Declaration.

The wealthy Black sailmaker James Forten, who as a child served in the revolution, wrote of his concerns in 1813 when the Pennsylvania legislature debated barring Blacks from emigrating to the state. Forten reminded his audience that “We hold this truth to be self-evident that God created all men equal, and is one of the most prominent features in the Declaration of Independence and in that glorious fabrick of collected wisdom, our noble Constitution.” Rather than ignore the Declaration or criticize the Constitution, Forten sought to appeal to the heart and insist that Blacks were friendly not only to the city and state, but the nation. After all, the Declaration and Constitution were the nation’s founding documents.

Twenty-five years later, Forten’s son-in-law, Robert Purvis, voiced similar dissatisfaction with Pennsylvania’s state constitution convention hosted in Philadelphia. The ramifications of the new state constitution included disenfranchising the state’s Black population. Purvis, a mixed-race abolitionist who would later help found the Underground Railroad, demanded to know if the Convention attendees would “tear up and cast away its first principles.”

Was it made the business of the Convention to deny “that all men are born equally free,” by making political rights depend upon the skin in which a man is born? or to divide what our fathers bled to unite, to wit, TAXATION and REPRESENTATION?

Bringing together White and Black founders, Purvis vowed never to forget their Revolutionary toils. “We take our stand upon that solemn declaration,”—which declaration we know, but whose declaration? America’s, whether Jefferson, Forten, Purvis, or Lincoln.

The robust and thriving Black Philadelphia was a target of various individuals and groups who firmly believed that the Constitution and God sanctioned enslavement.

Like the Founders, though, Black Philadelphians did not sit idly by and watch their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor die quietly. Black Philadelphians built churches, created community organizations, and worked with friendly whites to preserve their hard wrought but never assumed freedom.

We cannot forget the role that Philadelphia’s multiracial abolitionists played in the creation of our country. While the founders are often maligned for their relative inaction on the topic of slavery, the following generation of Americans, steeped in the promises of our founding documents and principles, banded together to show all Americans, including us, the true stakes of freedom. It is no coincidence that Blacks demanding emancipation, women demanding the vote, and immigrants demanding citizenship all called upon our founding principles to justify their freedom. These reformers were in keeping with the Union, especially in how they helped form the more perfect Union we live in today.

Philadelphia is not perfect; the founders were not perfect; we, all of us, are not perfect. However, the striving that our ancestors committed to in order to realize our founding ideals remains a source of inspiration today. And like Lincoln, we must all raise the flag by believing that the founding of our nation unleashed freedom in a way unheard of in human history. With humility, we must admit that we are not perfect. As Americans, we must remember that place matters, and our founding principles are best understood when we look at how they were made real in the city of brotherly love.

Visit Independence Hall. Send yourself back to 1776 or 1861, two beacons of freedom. Engage in the messy history between those years—enslavement—and think about why those victimized in the northernmost southern city appealed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to justify their lives as Americans. Embrace the boundless appeal of both documents, what they meant and still mean to Americans of all backgrounds and destinies, and how we all must strive together if we ever hope to realize their promises.

Image Credit: Ferdinand Richardt, “Independence Hall in Philadelphia” (1858-1863) via Picryl

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