I was in the City of Brotherly Love over the weekend at my stepdaughter’s volleyball tournament. I took the opportunity to walk around the city, particularly the historic area near Penn’s Landing where the original colonists settled next to the Delaware River. Here are a few observations:
- A Miraculous Eleven Years - The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Constitution in 1787. The essential work was done in a three-block area, consisting of the former Pennsylvania Legislature (now Independence Hall), the U.S. Congress building, and the President’s house. The statue of The Signer in Signers Garden is modeled after George Clymer, a Philadelphia merchant who signed both documents. I came across the Declaration House, the rental home of Thomas Jefferson, then a 33-year-old delegate from Virginia, where he authored the famous document.
- The Power of the Liberty Bell - Now across the street from Independence Hall, the Bell traveled around the U.S. in the 1800s to expositions and fairs. The Women’s Suffrage and Civil Rights Movements both adopted it as a symbol.
- The Irish Memorial - The Great Potato Famine led to the Great Hunger. By 1860, the Irish were the largest immigrant group in Philadelphia. The statue was erected 20 years ago. It has 35 figures who represent both the despair and hope of the Irish immigrants. The most poignant scene is a mother digging for potatoes as her ragged son looks on, next to Celtic grave markers.
- The William Penn Memorial - Penn had a difficult start, dismissed from Oxford University for his Quaker beliefs. He used a debt owed by King Charles II to his father in trade for a giant land grant in what became Pennsylvania. He organized the new state from the UK, replete with plans for spacious town squares (note Rittenhouse Square in present day) so that urban residents would have room to breathe. He wanted religious freedom, self-government by the people, and trial by jury.
- The Barnes Museum - Talk about immaculate timing. Wallace Barnes sold his pharmaceutical business just before the Great Depression for cash. Then he swooped into Europe to buy Impressionist art. Barnes had personal relationships with several of the important artists, such as Henri Matisse, who created The Dance II, a triptych mural that stretches 15 x 32 feet across the first floor of the museum. Note that the present museum replicates the Barnes home in suburban Philadelphia which housed the works until the new edifice was completed in 2012 in the city so that all could get access.
- City Hall - It took thirty years to complete this building, with 700 rooms to conduct the people’s business. It is the largest city hall in the country. Each ethnic group gets its own sound bite. For example, the Dutch plaque recognizes that they were the original settlers, from 1630 to 1660. For Civil War buffs, there are twin statues of General George McClellan, a Philadelphia native, and General John Reynolds who was killed at Gettysburg. For businesspeople, there is a statue of John Wanamaker, retailing genius, who built one of the earliest department stores in the U.S., with such innovations as the money-back guarantee.
- The First National Bank of the United States - The classical design of the Bank, stationed next to Independence Hall, was intended to give Americans confidence in their currency after the horrific experience of the American Revolution when worthless Continentals were issued to finance the war effort. The bank helped to stabilize the young republic and made Philadelphia the financial center of the country until President Andrew Jackson terminated the bank’s charter as violative of state’s rights.
I had a deep sense of tranquility and mission walking back from my tour of the cradle of American democracy. As school kids gathered around a woman dressed in period garb, I recognized that this is an eternal story that can inspire all of us to our better selves.
Richard Edelman is CEO of Edelman.