Independence Day: Inventing American History

Independence Day: Inventing American History

As we observe Independence Day in the United States, we look back at the nation’s history. William Hogeland’s Inventing American History is a call to make the celebration of America’s past more honest. Hogeland argues that only when we can ground our public history in the gritty events of the day, embracing its contradictions and difficulties, will we be able to learn from it. In the following excerpt, he takes readers on a tour of the U.S. Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The first impression the Constitution Center makes is its sheer size. Approaching from a distance on Independence Mall, you confront a high stone curtain against blank sky. The façade eschews any kitschy colonial or federal-era references. This is a temple—grave, stirring, and monumental. No one pretends anything happened here.

The next impression is a strange emptiness. On a Sunday morning last spring, there was no line for the Constitution Center. Other attractions on the mall’s almost treeless expanse were drawing families of avid American-history tourists, splashes of color against the green. Near the south end of the mall sits the eighteenth-century Pennsylvania State House, with its famous cupola and bell tower (because the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were debated and signed there, it has been known for years as Independence Hall). Strung along the mall’s western edge are the National Park Service’s Visitor Center and the Liberty Bell’s low-slung viewing house. The eastern edge opens on the preserved and reconstructed old city—Carpenter’s Hall, and the site of Benjamin Franklin’s home, and brick buildings and gardens with appeal for history buffs and oldhouse fans alike. The imposing Constitution Center walls off the north end.

That Sunday morning the tourists were already walking the shady streets, booking tickets for the ranger-guided tours of Independence Hall, and lining up for the Liberty Bell. Once the few people hanging around outside the Constitution Center went in, the building looked eerily still. In the Center’s vast lobby, filled with natural light, emptiness expands. The ceiling soars with vaulting tetrahedrons. Visitors pass an elderly greeter evincing vague cheer in Wal-Mart mode and wander toward a distant ticket-booth island, wondering aloud what’s up, since there’s almost nothing to see but plaques praising private donors (“Patriots,” “Founders,” etc.) and a staircase sweeping to a broad, curving mezzanine lined by full-scale state flags hanging from the high ceiling. At the booth you and your fellow visitors are reminded that unlike National Park Service sites, where admission is included in your tax obligation, the Center charges. The ticket, almost as large as an open billfold, is an important-looking souvenir labeled “Delegate’s Pass”; you also get a red-white-and-blue paper wristband like those for drink tickets. But there’s still no visible enticement or obvious place to go. Friendly young ticket-sellers mention casually that the next show will start soon. Visitors gather that they’re supposed to see it. Another young employee stands in the distance, waiting to take part of the ticket. You troop past her.

You’ve entered a circular hall surrounding a cylindrical theater. While waiting for doors in the inner wall to open to the theater, you wander the circle, whose other wall is dedicated to impressionistic street scenes and maps of Philadelphia in 1787, year of the Constitutional Convention. Amid recorded bird chirping and period street noise, disembodied voices give actor-y exposition. “I grant you that times are bad, but . . .” “Have you seen the latest broadside by our friend Jupiter Howard of Long Island? . . .” The theater doors fly open automatically. You leave the eighteenth century and enter a dim space with steeply banked, industrial-chic seats around a circle of floor, where a presenter will stand and speak in the round.

During several visits, the seats were far from full. Once there seemed to be fewer than fifteen people scattered about the dark. A collage of period music and noise—bagpipes, clopping hooves, hymns, fiddles and fifes, black worksongs—is interrupted periodically by a recorded announcement of welcome, instruction, and prohibition: no eating or drinking, leave at the end of the show by going up the stairs, not through the lower entrances, etc. The coolly comforting female voice repeating the message, the automatically opening doors, and the podlike ambience make the place feel 1960s-futuristic.

The young workers close the doors. Lights dim further. The presenter enters through the last open door—that Sunday an African-American woman in a trim, man-cut dark suit and open-necked white shirt. A light shines brightly on her as she takes the center of the floor. “We . . . the people,” she begins, looking around at the spectators. Her voice and face blend immense wonder, delight, and curiosity. She has a big job to do. The presentation rests on her delivery of a script, supported by music and sound and by imagery on a cyclorama running around the top of the theater.

The show is called “Freedom Rising,” and the presenter channels its relentless mood of triumph through facial expression, phrasing, and dynamics. This kind of recitation, with every gesture and glance memorized and controlled, was once an important part of American entertainment. The presenter is amplified, but her style is pre-amplification, pitched for the outdoor platform, the revue hall, the pulpit, and for an era when audiences with high tolerance for artificiality delighted in vocal nuance and expressive gesture. Near the climax, having asked rhetorically what will keep us together as a nation, the presenter starts pointing at various members of the audience, making eye contact and answering her own question: “You, sir . . . and you . . . and you . . . and you!” By the end she’s shouting her story, having climbed to an upper aisle, while images flash around the high cyclorama and the music swells over military drumbeat. The cyclorama is pulling your gaze upward. Soaring music and rhetoric make you feel, willy-nilly, as if you are lifting your head not to see, but nobly, eyes fixed on an ideal about which you feel increasingly fervent. Whatever you may really be thinking, participation is made physical. “You!” are no mere spectator. “You!” are the star player in a thrilling historical tableau.