Philadelphia tours in a time of Trump

Philadelphia tours in a time of Trump

Independence Hall in Philadelphia

Independence Hall | Photo by Philadelphia Urban Adventures

On the 9th of November 2016, I stood before Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and braced myself. At that critical moment on my History in HD tour, it is my habit to recite a section of the Declaration of Independence. Here, I hope to impress upon my travelers the gravity of standing in precisely the spot where someone heard for the very first time that their rights were not given by a king, subject to retraction at any moment, but by God at birth — and that no king on Earth had the power to revoke them.

And so, as I had done hundreds of times in my six years at Urban Adventures, I began to speak: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created…” I stopped. My voice had never failed on a tour before, and yet here, facing the room in which the signers had resolved to put their lives on the line in defense of their idea of liberty, I found I could not speak.

Embarrassed, I turned my shoulder away from the travelers, hoping that they wouldn’t be able to see their guide standing before Independence Hall with tears in his eyes. I composed myself after a moment, and was finally able to complete the sentence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Later that night, eerily warm for early November, I walked through the historic district, trying to reassure myself that, despite the calamity of the day before, those self-evident principles were still operative. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tears that had threatened to derail my tour hours before fell freely as I sat before Independence Hall, empty and lit in a ghostly white.

President Trump’s election shook me so thoroughly that, rather than return to the couch on which I had drunk election night away, I stood from my place in Old City, and walked into the demonstrations happening only blocks away. There, I saw people twice and three times my age marching with some of my students at Villanova, united in the belief that they were giving a voice to those who had not been heard in the election, to people upon whose liberties that election’s results had gravely infringed.

It occurred to me that that was precisely what many of the people who took to the polls in support of the then president-elect believed themselves to be doing: standing up for their natural liberties, upon which the government machine in Washington had long imposed.

Fascinated, I returned night after night, and heard people chant for their rights, for the freedoms that the Revolution had promised them, and, most of all, to calm the nerves of their comrades, to remind themselves that they were not alone in resisting what we all agreed would be an unprecedented mutation of the American political geography.

It was from these experiences that two important changes in the content and the ethos of my History in HD tour arose. First, and most saliently, I resolved that, on my tour, the American Revolution and its actors would never be presented starkly, nor would their ideologies. As Urban Adventures guides in the birthplace of the United States, I believe we have a unique responsibility to be nuanced in our presentation of our highly politicized Revolution. The ethics of responsible travel do not end when one has traveled as ecologically and as safely as possible. As guides, it is our responsibility to provide the best, the most accurate, and the most thoroughly researched account of the events of our city as possible.

In the case of Philadelphia’s Old City, this often requires that we challenge the mythology of the American Revolution and present the Founders in their full complexity — contradictions and all. In an era in which the ideals of the Revolution and the intentions of the Founders are claimed by both sides’ rhetoric, it is more important than ever to tell that story as well as we can. For that reason, and although it frequently unsettles people to hear that their first president, who braved a winter at Valley Forge with his soldiers, also signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which required governments and residents of free states to enforce the capture and return of fugitive slaves. And in the very building in which Jefferson revealed his declaration, it is absolutely vital that we continue to bring that level of complexity and attention to detail to the narratives we craft about our revolutionary past.

Trump’s election changed both how I think about my tours, and what kind of content I put before my travelers. I have made a greater effort than ever to research the lives of the enslaved people in Philadelphia, who would have witnessed this nation’s founding, and whose labor was the economic engine of the early republic. I pride myself on repeating their names: Alice, Austin, Paris, Hercules, Oney Judge, and Robert Hemings until I am convinced that my travelers will remember them. And then, standing in the replica of the slave quarters on the property that Robert Morris gave to the federal government for President Washington’s home, I implore them: the next time you’re on a tour somewhere, and someone like me claims to be telling the history of the United States, remember those names, and remember that you had never heard them until today; let them be a reminder of how much work remains ahead of us before we can rightfully claim to be telling the full, complex, often maddening history of the United States.

When I’m told, as I sometimes am, that all of that messy history was an awfully long time ago and that I ought to let it go, I remind my travelers that there is a chandelier in a church in Old City, which has been hanging in the same place for longer than there has been a United States. In that same church, there have only been 10 pastors since the signing of the Declaration. I hardly think that we have come so far that we can now afford to begin forgetting the lives of people like Hercules and Judge and Hemings, nor that we should suspend the search for more stories like theirs.

In the era of alternative facts, I view my tours of Old City as a subtle form of protest, a way of expressing to those people with whom I’m fortunate to tour the city, how much of the story of the Revolution is swept under the rug in the name of national political rhetoric. In a strange way, I should thank the president. As a result of his election, I give that tour with a purpose in which I deeply believe, and I believe that, every once in a while, what I say may actually linger with my travelers after our final stop. I also nearly cry every time I recite that simple sentence from the Declaration now, as well I should.

History in HD

Visit those unmissable Philly sights on this historical Philadelphia tour that ditches the guidebooks and gives you a dose of history from a local perspective. After all, this is the history that shaped the people of this city, so why not learn about it from them?

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