The train pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street station on a rainy Saturday afternoon. This was my first trip to Philly and I was looking forward to it, although I didn’t know what to expect. The extent of my research was a google search on “Things to do in Philly” last night after checking into my flight. Whatever Philadelelphia had to offer me, I was happy to be travelling, and happier still that I had packed an umbrella.
As I came up the wet subway steps, my eyes fell on a sign for the Gaslight Pub. Good! It was nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten a proper lunch, and I was starving. The moment I stepped into the pub, I was overcome by the familiar scent of alcohol, wood and damp, and I could feel my spirits lifting as I shed the stress of traveling onto the hardwood floor. I don’t know what it is about the smell of pubs that has such an ability to unwind people – the smell isn’t exactly pleasant – but I cannot deny it’s magical effects. I ordered a French Onion soup and a glass of wine, and looked out the window at a city waiting to be discovered.
The rain had no intention of letting up, and I had no intention of staying in. After checking into my hotel and finding my umbrella, I was on my way to the Liberty Bell half a mile away. Short of my final destination, my umbrella and I had no plan. I walked past some mid-century architecture and a closed restaurant, questioning the route I had chosen, when I saw a traditional English garden to my right. I tucked in to take a closer look and was pleasantly surprised to find that the garden backed onto a beautiful open lot criss-crossed with cobblestone streets and colonial-era buildings. As I tipped back my umbrella to get a better view, I saw a man dressed as a pilgrim sneaking a quick cigarette on his break. Save for the cars at the end of the lane, I imagined that I was looking at the same view that a Philadelphian would have taken in on a rainy afternoon 200 years ago. I wandered along a cobblestone laneway to a cluster of buildings on my left, and entered a walled garden. I was standing in front of Carpenter’s Hall, the meeting place of the First Continental Congress in 1774. Led by John and Sam Adams of Boston, the rebel leaders of the American Revolution met here to air their grievances to an absent King and commit to a course of action. Although this course did not include bloodshed, by the time the Continental Congress reconvened in July 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, war had begun.
As I stood there looking up at a traditional and rather small colonial building, I noticed a familiar feeling brewing inside me: a feeling of joy and discovery and confirmation: I was awakening, my mind sparking ideas faster that I could keep up with them. If Boston is where the rebels dreamed of independence, Philadelphia is where they manifested it.
City of Brotherly Love. The location the rebels chose as America’s first capitol was no accident, and neither is my presence here today. Seventy-five years before the Founding Fathers declared independence here, William Penn declared his vision of Brotherly Love in his Charter of Privileges. Expelled from University for non-conformity, persecuted for his Quaker beliefs and a disappointment to his family, William Penn set out to create a city where brothers (and sisters) from different faiths could live side by side, united in their acceptance and respect of their differences. Now they were united by a common dream as well.
As I continued past Carpenter’s Hall, slightly disoriented by the rain, I found myself looking up at an imposing building, perfectly symmetrical, with a dominating bellfry and flanked by three arched walkways on either side. The crowd was my first sign that I had stumbled onto something significant, the roped off inner court was the second. I was looking at Independence Hall, the first seat of American Government, where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were signed and the where rebels emerged from the chrysallis of war as hero Founding Fathers. Ordinary men – carpenters, smiths, lawyers and landowners – had achieved the extraordinary: true independence.
I circled Independence Hall, taking in the majesty of the building that the Carpenter’s Association originally built as a simple State House. There were guided tours available, but I preferred to stay outside and continue exploring. The steady rain and I were becoming friends now, eliminating the need to worry about lighting as I snapped photographs. And suddenly, I stumbled upon my destination: I was standing in front of the Liberty Bell. I peaked through the glass and wondered what all the fuss was about. I had reached arguably the most famous landmark in the city, but my journey and the discoveries I made along the way were immensely more satisfying.
Isn’t that the whole point, though? So many of us set a goal, program it into our internal GPS and follow the most direct route to get there as fast as we can, scarcely glancing aside as we barrel forward, only to arrive at our destination and find disappointment. The Liberty Bell was a disappointment, but I didn’t mind because my journey getting there had been an unexpected pleasure. What I learned about the time and place and people of revolutionary Philadelphia was much more valuable – to me and to history – than a cracked bell. If we all slowed down for just a moment, if we wandered on the way to our destination instead of constantly seeking the shortest route, I wonder: where would our journey take us? Would we still find what we are looking for? Or will we discover what we didn’t even know we needed? I set off to find a famous cracked bell in the rain, and I discovered that even the wildest dreams can be manifested at remarkable speed.
Ordinary men doing ordinary things changed the course of history. So can I, so can you. All we need to do is look around and see the opportunity.