The biggest takeaway from the new Museum of the American Revolution? Liberty was fragile; we came so close to losing. Many times.
The new museum, located at Third and Chestnut and set to open Wednesday, is not a candy-coated, romanticized view of a young unified nation. Its exhibits explain, in great detail, how the colonies were already home to a diverse range of populations with widely varying views on whether to try for independence. Local leaders who feared war are not presented as people on the wrong side of history, but honest people who wondered how they could beat the most powerful empire the world had ever seen. American soldiers were not just overwhelmingly outgunned; many of them from the South and Mid-Atlantic were literally fighting in moccasins, and a movable display shows the stark contrasts between how soldiers dressed. Blacks and Natives who sided with the crown are shown as Americans who questioned what revolutionaries meant when they spoke of “liberty.”
War was already underway before America declared its independence. The unanimous vote required to do so had been stymied by Mid-Atlantic colonies. That did not change until July 2nd, when Pennsylvania’s key opponents absented themselves to let Benjamin Franklin’s faction have their way, New York abstained entirely, and a Delawarean delegate rushed on horseback through a storm to break the tie for his state.
And, so, again the museum underscores, America almost did not happen.
It was a point hammered home Thursday during the museum’s preview by former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. “It’s amazing how fragile the Revolution was,” he said, adding: “Even in Philadelphia, there’s untold stories that no one knows.”
Rendell described America’s system as delicate. He turned to the oft-told story that when Benjamin Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention, he was stopped and asked what kind of government they made, to which he replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.”
And, nodding to the more-divided-than-ever Republic of red and blue states, Rendell said, “Some of the events of the last [few] years make you wonder if we can keep it.”
POWs in Independence Hall
While it’s known the British captured Philly in the war’s early years, it’s odd to think of the tourist destination of Independence Hall as a building under occupation. The museum recreates that piece of history, reproducing a portion of the Hall’s wartime interior. A lot of Americans were not okay with George Washington after such a blow, and the legendary general dodged an effort in Congress to remove him. The museum’s exhibits go to great lengths to paint the unlikely victories, tally devastating losses and lay the chaos bare.
Visitors can walk through galleries bearing artifacts, then sit in one of theaters for a short movie that illustrates the Americans of the era were more than sharp, long suffering and deeply principled, but exhausted and terrified. One of these theaters is enhanced with smoke and strobe lighting. There’s plenty of interactive features to the museum actually, but we’ll skip spoiling them all.
The exhibits aim to braid together perspectives from Americans of varying backgrounds, pointing to differences in experiences by race and gender. In one film, two Iroquois Confederacy members debate siding with loyalists or rebels, in a gallery to honor the Oneida, who allied with revolutionaries early and fiercely.
In clips that delve into the Continental Congresses, voices like Abigail Adams’ are incorporated in the narrative. She wrote to her husband in 1776, “I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors.” The messages are clear… and kinda woke. The Museum of the American Revolution tells the story not only of America’s unlikeliness, but also that the ideals that fueled its birth— “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…” — weren’t easily won and weren’t shared equally by all.
Inside the Museum, don’t miss:
A replica privateer ship
Visitors can “board” it and read about how sailors furthered the nation’s cause in a time where their enemies weren’t solely the British, but also pirates.
George Washington’s War Tent
Yeah, the real thing. That bad boy gets its own theater.
The “Revolution Generation in Photographs”
The youth of the Revolution lived to see to photography, and there is a stunning gallery of portraits of Americans who lived through the War.