Our second time in Philadelphia wasn’t meant to be a total retread of our 2010 visit. Just the same, we couldn’t resist walking past a few of the major highlights. We also couldn’t help walking past them — the parking garage underneath Independence Mall was the most convenient place to leave the car for our first few hours in town, adjacent to several new sights we wanted to see. This year we had slightly more time, somewhat better cameras, and far better maps at our fingertips, given that neither of us owned a mobile phone till 2012.
In our long, long drives through 32 states and counting, we’ve seen a version of Jamestown, Civil War battlefields, the National World War II Museum, and memorials honoring the individual casualties from America’s last 105 years’ worth of wars or so. We still have a few official war museums to cross off, which we expect will follow the pattern — lots of artifacts from the era, probably some writing samples, and of course plenty of photos where applicable.
Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution features 18,000 square feet of exhibits covering the trials and tumults of our nation’s infancy, but begins with a severe disadvantage: 240 years ago, no one thought to take photos, or bothered to invent the camera in a timely manner. If a nation rises but no one Instagrammed it, is it still free?
The American flag was a recurring motif on our 2017 road trip to Baltimore. We’d visited Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” in between cannon fusillades; and we’d visited the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, where seamstress Mary Young Pickersgill sewed the very flag to which Mr. Key wrote his long-lasting ode.
Before Mrs. Pickersgill, and before Mr. Key, there was the trailblazer they followed, the grand dame of Old Glory herself — Betsy Ross.
Well…allegedly. Historians dispute the veracity of some or every aspect of the classic tale of Betsy Ross sewing our first flag at the behest of George Washington Himself. We weren’t at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia to examine the evidence and settle the debate once and for all, or to dispel our illusions and tremble at discovering Everything You Know Is Wrong. The truth is, the House just so happened to be along the path we’d chosen to walk down downtown Philly. It was a second-tier option on our to-do list, ranking mostly because we’d read that Betsy Ross’ own grave is on the premises. Ross wasn’t a solid fit into our “Presidential gravesite” theme, but for history’s sake Anne was mildly interested. And I was game.
In the spirit of the House’s presentation, I shall now refuse to type “allegedly” for the remainder of this chapter lest I bore myself out of writing it. Mentally insert if wherever you feel it should fit for your level of comfort and/or dedication to truthiness.
The voluminous main floor of the National Constitution Center was interesting and educational in and of itself, but an unusual display awaited us on the second floor in the George H. W. Bush Gallery, a room in which the momentous signing of the U.S. Constitution takes on real-life proportions and surrounds visitors in history and metal.
Among our nineteen official annual road trips, we’ve had a few experiences in which we found ourselves falling short of our goals, not quite exploring our targeted locations to the fullest, and promising ourselves to keep them in mind in case we had time in the future to call do-over. Some of the cities and states we’ve visited are extremely unlikely to see us return, for better or worse. But we like the idea of arranging second chances where possible and merited.
Once upon a time, Philadelphia was supposed to be the center of our 2010 road trip. As I wrote in the present-day commentary for that particular travelogue:
Some of our road trips simply needed more days that what we allotted. We thought we’d learned that lesson on our 2005 drive to San Antonio, when we spent more time in the car than we did on foot in Texas, because their state is like a separate continent compared to home. Our trip to Philadelphia encountered similar issues but for a different reason. We’d found so many interesting sights to see near Philly that we barely left any time for the city itself…
This year we had a few different ideas what to do after leaving New Jersey and entering Pennsylvania. Two contenders rose above the rest: either head southeast for our introductory foray into the first state of Delaware, or go back to Philadelphia. We wouldn’t have time to venture too far into Delaware, but any attractive excuse to step foot inside its border would’ve been nice, if only to cross another state off our bucket lists. After a considerable amount of research on its nearest regions, our hypothetical Delaware to-do list looked like this:
1. Check out their capitol dome
2. Visit the gravesites of the exactly zero Presidents buried there
3. Reenact the “Hi! We’re in…Delaware” scene from Wayne’s World
…and that’s the story of why our next several chapters feature our grand return to Philadelphia. And what better way to dive into the original capital of the United States of America than to visit a giant museum dedicated to the Founding Fathers and some of their most important words that made America work?
The image of General George Washington leading troops in boats across the Delaware River is one of those iconic moments in the Revolutionary War that’s ingrained in the consciousness of every American student at a young age, even if teachers don’t necessarily explain the full context. Like many other scenes from Washington’s life, travelers can visit the area where history happened, tread the same treasured ground our forefathers did, and of course learn more about their feats from whatever museum, park, visitors center, statue, or plaque sprang forth to mark the spot.
In the case of this particular moment in time, visitors also need to make sure which “Washington Crossing” park they want to see.