Pennsylvania: Independence National Historical Park Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This National Historical Park is the original area of Philadelphia, the first capital of the United States of America and the site of the writing and adoption of the Declaration of Independence and the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.

Site Office

Independence National Historical Park

313 Walnut Street

Philadelphia, PA 19106

ph.: (215) 597-8974

Web site: www.nps.gov/inde/

Just west of the Delaware River in the oldest section of Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park encompasses twenty-six buildings and sites where the Founding Fathers of the United States created the new nation. In the park’s Independence Hall, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and other leading citizens of the thirteen colonies debated and signed the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Liberty Bell rang in Independence Square, on the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence.

Early History

Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by the Quaker William Penn. When Benjamin Franklin, destined to become the city’s most famous resident, arrived there in 1723 as a teenager, it was still a small Quaker town on the edge of the wilderness and the Delaware River. Franklin later established a printing business and started the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper. He founded the American Philosophical Society and organized the first firefighting company in the colonies, saw to it that streets were lighted and paved, started the local militia, and founded Philadelphia’s first hospital.

The restored Market Street houses, three of which were built by Franklin, serve as a reminder of his presence. Just behind them is the site of the only home Franklin ever owned. A steel frame marks the site, as there was not enough information available about the home to do an authentic reconstruction. Beneath it is an underground museum and architectural/archaeological exhibit and an operating eighteenth century print shop. Franklin is buried nearby at Christ Church Cemetery.

By 1774 Philadelphia had grown into the colonies’ largest, wealthiest, and most cosmopolitan city, with nearly thirty thousand residents occupying six thousand houses and three hundred shops clustered along the Delaware River, in what is now the site of Independence National Historical Park. At this time, the city was a melting pot of English, German, and Scotch-Irish who were Lutherans, Jews, Catholics, Moravians, Methodists, and Presbyterians as well as Quakers, and it was home to the genteel as well as the ordinary laborer.

The colonies also were growing, and colonists were tired of paying taxes to England while having no representation in the English Parliament. Philadelphia, the American focal point of the ideals of the Enlightenment, the intellectual awakening that swept Europe in the mid-eighteenth century, was a natural base for radicals seeking change.

Growing Friction with British Rule

To circumvent Pennsylvania’s conservative provincial assembly, Benjamin Franklin and other liberal leaders began meeting at Philadelphia’s City Tavern to discuss revolutionary measures combining mass involvement and economic tactics. On May 20, 1774, Paul Revere arrived at the tavern with the news that the English had closed the port of Boston. An extensive discussion followed inside, with the group coming to the conclusion that they would convey their sympathies to Boston and adhere firmly to the cause of American liberty.

Such discussions laid the groundwork for a revolution in Pennsylvania, and soon radical committees were operating in every county in Pennsylvania, with the de facto popular government’s “headquarters” in City Tavern. This Philadelphia Committee of Observation, Inspection, and Correspondence decided to convene a Congress of the Thirteen Colonies in September, 1774, in Philadelphia to formulate statements on colonial rights and grievances.

The First Continental Congress

The First Continental Congress delegates to arrive from twelve colonies (Georgia declined to attend) met at City Tavern and walked over to inspect the newly constructed, roomy but private Carpenters’ Hall, and decided to hold the Congress there. To the Congress came such men as George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, and John Jay. The Adamses were warned by other delegates, including some Philadelphians, “You must not utter the word independence, or give the least hint or insinuation of the idea. No one dares to speak of it here.” Revolution was still an idea only the radicals seriously considered, and many believed the outspoken Adams cousins were agitators for independence.

Joseph Galloway, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly, had offered the State House (now Independence Hall) for the delegation, and considered the rejection of it in favor of Carpenters’ Hall as a slap at the conservative assembly. To make matters worse, the delegates next chose Charles Thomson, “the Sam Adams of Philadelphia,” as secretary of the Congress. Although most of the Congress delegates were moderates, these decisions lent a radical tone to the rest of the proceedings.

During the first week, a report that the British had killed some colonists while seizing gunpowder supplies in Boston and had fired their cannon on Boston riled the Congress to the point of wanting war. The report turned out to be a hoax, but it let Samuel Adams test the mood of the delegates in light of an outbreak of violence. The news had caused many to change their moderate positions.

Resolutions and Declarations

A week had not passed before Paul Revere arrived with the Suffolk Resolves, a list of resolutions drawn up by residents of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. The resolves called for formation of a colonial army, disobedience to acts of Parliament, and the funneling of taxes to an independent provincial government. A motion to endorse the measures passed by a voice vote that was recorded as unanimous, although Galloway and his allies sat in stunned silence. Galloway called the vote “tantamount to a complete declaration of war,” and believed Samuel Adams was behind the Suffolk Resolves and the author of the Boston hoax. Hoping to counter Adams and the radicals, Galloway presented his “Plan of Union,” which proposed a colonial council that would become a branch of the British Parliament. The council would have control over intercolonial commercial, civil, and criminal matters, requiring only the approval of Parliament to validate its actions.

A terrific debate between conservatives and radicals ensued, but the die had been cast. The revolutionary radical faction won a victory when delegates voted down Galloway’s plan, and the Congress formulated and sent a Declaration of Rights and Grievances to King George III. They also agreed to boycott English goods, forming the Continental Association to enforce this decision.

The men decided to gather again the following spring if England did not rectify the colonies’ grievances. England did not act, and the Second Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House (Independence Hall) on May 10, 1775. Fighting against the British had already broken out at Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts, and the Congress reluctantly moved from ethereal theories of government to armed resistance. George Washington was appointed commander in chief of all American armed forces. The Continental Congress also assumed authority over provincial troops at Boston. During these first months of the revolution, people in colony after colony transferred their allegiance from their legal governmental institutions to extralegal revolutionary committees, state conventions, and the Continental Congress.

On May 1, 1776, the moderates won a referendum against independence in the Pennsylvania Assembly. The radicals in the Second Continental Congress were proceeding toward independence, however, and waited only for the assurance of popular support before making their proclamation. Throughout May and June, the Pennsylvania Assembly met on the second floor of the State House, debating the issue of independence, while the Continental Congress sat below on the first floor waiting. Meanwhile, Thomas Paine, newly arrived in Philadelphia, published Common Sense, a persuasive pamphlet on why the colonies should break from England.

The Declaration of Independence

On May 15, 1776, the Congress, in a document written by John Adams, urged the colonies to set up their own governments as states. This decision, however, still fell short of a formal, collective declaration of independence by all the colonies. Before recessing on June 10, the Congress appointed a five-man committee to draft such a declaration. The task of writing the first draft fell mainly to Thomas Jefferson. Working in a second-floor parlor of Jacob Graff’s house, Jefferson completed the draft of the Declaration of Independence in two weeks, basing the document on broad universal rights. He submitted it to the committee, and Benjamin Franklin and John Adams made small alterations. The Congress still was not unanimous on independence, and there followed a nine-hour debate on July 1. The Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776.

On July 6, the declaration was published in the Pennsylvania Evening Post and the term “United States of America” used for the first time. The declaration was first read in public in the State House yard (now Independence Square) outside Independence Hall, on July 8, 1776. The British royal coat of arms was torn down and burned and not one, but two Liberty Bells were rung.

The Liberty Bell

The first Liberty Bell had been cast in 1752 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges, the democratic constitution William Penn had granted the colony in 1701. It cracked while being tested, and the colonists got tired of waiting for a new bell from London, so they recast the original bell in Philadelphia. The mended bell was hung in the tower of the Pennsylvania State House, but because of the copper used during repairs, the tone was not good. When its replacement arrived from London, it was decided to use both bells together, so both bells tolled during the first public proclamation of the Declaration of Independence. When British troops entered Philadelphia the next year, the bells were sent to Allentown for safekeeping and returned when the troops left.

The first bell next cracked during the funeral of Chief Justice John Marshall in 1835. It last rang formally in 1846 during the observance of George Washington’s birthday, and now remains on display in Liberty Bell Pavilion. Antislavery groups coined the bell’s name in the nineteenth century, inspired by its inscription, “Proclaim Liberty thro’ all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof.” The second bell is at Villanova University.

Thaddeus Kosciuszko

In August, 1776, Thaddeus Kosciuszko, a Pole who had studied military engineering, arrived in Philadelphia and applied to the Continental Congress for a commission in the army. Although he had no formal military experience, Kosciuszko’s request was granted, and the thirty-year-old became a colonel. Kosciuszko distinguished himself near Saratoga, contributing greatly to the surrender of six thousand troops under General John Burgoyne at Bemis Heights, overlooking the Hudson River. Many consider the surrender of Burgoyne on October 17, 1777, the turning point of the Revolutionary War. It was the colonies’ first major victory over the British, and led France to join the colonies’ fight.

Kosciuszko next was entrusted with the defense of the Hudson River at West Point, beginning in March, 1778, and continuing for twenty-eight months. The fortifications he planned and built were so imposing that the British never attacked. In 1780, Kosciuszko began serving in the southern campaign where he remained until the war ended. He was promoted to brigadier general in 1783. He returned to Poland in 1784 and became involved in the Polish resistance to Czarist Russia. He wrote the Act of Insurrection, a document strongly resembling the American Declaration of Independence. The resistance movement was defeated, and Kosciuszko was banished from Poland. He returned to Philadelphia to a hero’s welcome in 1797, and stayed at a boardinghouse at Third and Pine Streets. Here he recuperated from his war wounds and became close friends with Thomas Jefferson, the two sharing many political beliefs. The second-floor bedroom where Kosciuszko stayed has been restored to look much as it did when he was there and is dedicated as the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

The Articles of Confederation

On November 17, 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Articles of Confederation in Philadelphia and presented the document to the states for approval. Under the Articles, the central government’s authority rested in the member states. The document was ratified on March 1, 1781. The Articles did not provide for a direct link to the people; instead the Congress had to try to enforce its laws through the states, which from the end of the Revolutionary War were increasingly becoming embroiled in quarrels and going their separate ways. Furthermore, the Congress had no capacity to raise money or regulate commerce, no executive to carry out its laws, and no judiciary to enforce them. Foreign nations treated the American Confederation with contempt, refusing to recognize it fully until the national government compelled the states to cooperate.

Calls for a New Constitution

The nationalists in Congress, including Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, began to believe that a total restructuring was necessary to restore the dream of the American Revolution. Others simply wanted reform to enable the central government to pay its war debts and spur economic revival. All wanted to make the central government adequate to its tasks and to command more respect from the rest of the world.

In September, 1786, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and Virginia sent delegates to the Annapolis Convention to discuss commercial matters. Because delegates from four other states arrived too late, it was impossible for those present to come to conclusions on commerce. Instead the men adopted a resolution by Hamilton that asked that all states send delegates to a new convention set for May, 1787, in Philadelphia. Besides commercial matters, the new convention would address issues necessary “to render the constitution of the Federal Government adequate to the exigencies of the Union.” A few weeks later, the Congress of the Confederation endorsed the meeting at Philadelphia “for the sole and express purpose of revising the Articles of Confederation and reporting to Congress and the several legislatures such alterations and provisions therein.”

Before the delegates could meet, Shays’s Rebellion occurred. Indebted farmers in Massachusetts revolted against the high taxes that the state levied as a means to pay its war debt. The armed resistance was the final indicator that change was necessary.

The Constitutional Convention

To the Philadelphia convention in May came delegates from twelve states, including such distinguished men as George Washington (who was presiding officer), James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, Roger Sherman, and Elbridge Gerry. Of fifty-five participants, more than half were lawyers and twenty-nine had attended college. After less than a month of debate, the convention decided that a new national government, not simply a revisal of the Articles, was necessary.

The debate next centered on the question of proportional versus equal representation of the states in Congress, pitting small states against large. In July, the convention agreed that representation in the lower house would be proportional to a state’s population while representation in the upper house would be equal. In the next major compromise, the South agreed to grant Congress the authority to pass navigation acts that the North wanted in return for the North’s agreeing that Congress would not interfere with the slave trade for twenty years. In September, after a great debate, the convention agreed to grant Congress the right to regulate foreign trade and interstate commerce.

It was then that Franklin said of the chair in which George Washington had been sitting, one with a sun with outstretched rays on its back:

I have often and often in the course of the session and vicissitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the president without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.

The resulting document, the Constitution, was approved on September 17, 1787, ratified by the requisite nine states on July 2, 1788, and took effect on March 4, 1789, in New York City, which had become the home of the national government after mutinous Pennsylvania soldiers had surrounded the Pennsylvania State House in 1783, demanding back pay.

Philadelphia as Temporary Capital

Philadelphia became a temporary capital in 1790 as a result of a compromise, while a new permanent site was being planned in what would become Washington, D.C. Many Philadelphians hoped to persuade the new national government to remain. They built a new County Courthouse (now Congress Hall) on the west side of the State House, for the U.S. Congress, which met there from 1790 to 1800, and a new City Hall on the east side for the Supreme Court; the court met there from 1791 to 1800. The First Bank of the United States was constructed. President Washington and his family moved into Robert Morris’s mansion in the city.

Philadelphia remained the capital until 1800. During these ten years in Philadelphia, Washington’s second inauguration took place in Congress Hall, the Bill of Rights was officially added to the Constitution, and three new states were admitted to the union. After the national government moved to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia never regained its prominence as the country’s principal city.

Creation of the Historic Park

Independence National Historical Park was founded by an act of Congress in 1948 to preserve Independence Hall (originally Pennsylvania’s State House) and a few surrounding buildings. In 1950 the park took over the area’s preservation and administration and bought other sites owned by the city of Philadelphia. The National Park Service began a restoration of the area, which it completed in the 1970’s.

This historic square mile also contains the sites where the first and second Continental Congresses convened and where the U.S. Supreme Court and U.S. Congress first met, when Philadelphia was capital of the newly formed United States from 1790 to 1800. Colonial middle-class and upper-middle-class homes, as well as businesses and churches, most of them restored originals, show how the residents of the time lived. George Washington dined at City Tavern before going off to lead the Continental army.

For Further Information
  • American Political Science Association, American Historical Association. This Constitution: Our Enduring Legacy. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1986. A collection of twenty-one essays by scholars in history, law, and government. Focuses on the roots and philosophies behind the Constitution, its framing, its meaning, and its evolution, including modern-day issues.
  • Brands, H. W. The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Doubleday, 2000. A biography of Franklin that discusses politics in the colonial era.
  • Clark, Ronald W. A Biography of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Random House, 1983. Takes readers on a journey with Franklin from his arrival in Philadelphia as a teenager to his involvement in the revolution and his success in the court of Louis XV of France.
  • National Park Service. Division of Publications. Independence: A Guide to Independence National Historical Park, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Washington, D.C.: National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1982. Provides a historical perspective on the park, and discusses such places of interest as Congress Hall, the Liberty Bell Pavilion, and Graff House, where Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.
  • Secor, Robert, ed. Pennsylvania 1776. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975. An excellent account of life, ideas, the arts, politics, and war in Pennsylvania during 1776. Written by a variety of specialists, the book provides insight into the events of 1776 in Philadelphia and the crucial state of Pennsylvania.
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