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The Tentacle


August 5, 2003

Honoring the Constitution: A Visit to Philly

Joe Volz

The document that the 39 men signed in a modest wood-paneled room at the state capitol that Fall day more than 200 years ago transformed the course of the nation.

Now, the U.S. Constitution and the founding fathers, men like Washington, Jefferson and Franklin (no women were allowed to participate), are honored in a new edifice in downtown Philadelphia, a few blocks from the Delaware River. It is just across the mall from that state capitol building, later named Independence Hall.

The National Constitution Center, a dramatic glass and granite museum, is designed to be more than just another Georgian-style colonial look-alike, featuring rooms of important musty documents from the early days of the Republic. It is a show-and-tell museum with films, TV clips, hands-on computer exercises and even a chance to be sworn in as President under glowing TV lights. (Not for real, of course.)

The importance of voting, a privilege denied to all blacks, women and property-less citizens in the early days of the nation, is constantly stressed throughout the museum.

Perhaps, the center has arrived just in time. Only half the nation's eligible voters cast their ballots in the last presidential election. And it is an age when more teenagers can name the Three Stooges, movie comics of a half century ago, than the three branches of the federal government -- Executive, Legislative and Judicial.

A Modern Look at the Past

A visitor enters the three-story lobby, with the words of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights etched on the walls. He receives a "delegate's pass," just as those first delegates might have been given to attend the Constitutional Convention. This pass, however, has a website address on it, which might have baffled the founding fathers.

The visitor walks into an amphitheater to listen to a man dressed in modern garb describe those early days of national tension in the late 1700s - first anger at occupying British troops and then squabbling between large colonies and small. Pictures flash from the walls of the theater and distant voices are heard worrying about the impending crisis with Great Britain over embargos and unfair taxation without representation. The 20-minute session ends with a dramatic rendition of the Star Spangled Banner as the flag waves on the circular walls of the theater.

The show seemed to this visitor like a pep rally for the nation, the Constitution and the wisdom of the founding fathers. However, the dozens of exhibits the tourist views after leaving the theater are more sobering -- and more realistic.

The museum does not gloss over the failings of the country. Terrible national abuses, such as slavery and the anti-black rulings of 19th century Supreme Courts, are displayed in words and pictures. But so, too, are decisions of different times, such as the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision outlawing segregated schools.

As I wandered through the exhibits looking at pictures and stories of the early days and glancing at film and TV clips of 20th century leaders like Kennedy, King and Roosevelt, there were some places where I lingered.

(By the way, it takes at least two hours to get a feel for the museum and you could easily spend a day at the center.)

Favorite Exhibits

Here are some of my favorites in two visits to the center:

* A computer gave me a chance to see if I would have been eligible to vote at the beginning of the nation, shortly after the Constitution was signed in 1787. It asked me if I was a citizen, what my race and gender were, if I owned property and how old I was. If my answers did not show that I was a white male citizen who owned property and was at least 21, a big red stamp, "Denied," flashed on the computer screen.

I noticed that most visitors were denied. If they had lived in the United States in the late 18th century, they would not have had the right to vote. It took changes in the Constitution over the next two centuries to guarantee all adult citizens, male and female, the right to vote.

*Nearby, a line of curtained voting booths beckoned. I had an option to vote for whomever of the past Presidents I thought was best. Well, I had 10 choices, seven were 20th century Presidents. The top 10 were chosen by a C-Span survey. The only 18th and 19th century nominees were Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln.

Vote for Greatest President

I picked Washington. The totals in the first weeks of the center's opening favored Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy (in that order). Perhaps, Kennedy won out over such giants as the Roosevelts, Wilson, the Adamses, Monroe and Madison, because his face was seen on so many TV monitors in the center giving speeches during his brief years as chief executive before his assassination in 1963.

*At another spot, I could write in more amendments to the Constitution. I desired not to tamper with it although I have not agreed with all of the Supreme Court decisions over the years.

*Bulletins boards with little pieces of note paper were scattered throughout the center where visitors could offer their written thoughts on just about anything. One writer praised "the freedom to travel in this great land," and another said, "As a woman, I enjoy the right to vote." Another, worrying about post 9-11 America, asked: "What is the point in protecting our country if we trample our own rights in the process?"

Perhaps, Henry Clay, the great 19th century politician and orator, but a losing presidential candidate, said it as well as anybody long ago: He argued that the Constitution was for "posterity -- unfinished, undefined, (and subject to) endless perpetual postscripts."

The Rest of the City of Brotherly Love

Of course, there is plenty more to see in the neighborhood, including Independence Hall, the U.S. Mint (no samples), the ornate City Hall and the home of Betsy Ross, colonial flag maker. Lately, though, there has been a dispute about whether she actually made the first Stars and Stripes, or not. Ask your guide.

For an overview, you might want to try a walking tour, operated by a University of Pennsylvania history student, Kyle Farley. Who knows, you might even see Ben Franklin wondering around the streets.

Philly Link

National Constitution Center

Walking Tour



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