Once upon a time, America’s president famously couldn’t tell a lie, joked renowned historian David McCollough at the opening of the Museum of the American Revolution in Old City Wednesday morning.
“Isn’t it great that we started off with a president who was famous for telling the truth?”
McCollough joined a remarkable lineup of boldfaced names — former ABC journalist Cokie Roberts, former Vice President Joe Biden and a laundry list of state and city officials, plus a Hamilton cast member — at the festivities at Third and Chestnut street and its environs. The author of 1776 and John Adams praised the museum’s commitment to different perspectives, noting that revolutionaries were really in the minority.
“This is something that is very important to understand: We only had a population of 2,500,000— 500,000 of whom were enslaved. So you’re talking about two million people who were free, a third of whom want to have an independent country, a third of whom who don’t want to, and a third of whom, in the good old human way, who were waiting to see who won. Truly,” he explained to Billy Penn. “So it wasn’t like the whole country wanted it. Far from it. But those that wanted it persisted, and cared and put their lives where their mouths were.”
But wait! We said Joe Biden! Were there Joe Biden moments? Of course there were. “I don’t think there’s any other anthem in the world that ends with a question; I may be mistaken,” he sort of asserted to the crowd.
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
Biden touched on moments in the country’s military history, asking if the flag was waving at each engagement. He then answered his own question: Yes, it was.
“And it will now and forever wave, but only if we hold on to it. Because it’s not the flag we’re waving, it’s what’s within us,” he said. “In the heart of every American is the idea of America.”
Biden noted that this is “what this museum aims to celebrate.”
There were musical performances and dedications at Washington Square Park. Next came a celebration in Independence Mall with former and current state officials from the original colonies on the dais. Then, finally, a big outdoor event under cloudy, gray skies ahead of the ribbon cutting, attended by Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, who told the audience that “the weather is always like this in Pennsylvania.”
Oneida Nation representative Ray Halbritter, Harvard historian Vincent Brown and Colonel John Bircher of the Military Order of the Purple Heart also spoke ahead of Biden.
The audience was treated to a musical performance by Hamilton actor Sydney James Harcourt, leading a choir of CAPA students in two songs from the play.
“This is like a theme park for history,” Harcourt said of Philly, to laughs.
Halbritter told the crowd that museum was doing the important work of honoring narratives that haven’t been told.
The story of America’s founding is “not an exercise of self congratulation,” said Halbritter. “It is more critical than ever for Americans to learn their multicultural roots and history.”
Elected officials and experts present repeatedly praised the museum for its focus on diversity. When asked how well the museum had achieved that goal, Roberts, the author of Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation, told Billy Penn, “You can go through museum after museum of American history and not know that women even existed at the time of the Revolution. And that’s just such a distortion, obviously, not only of human history but of the political situation. These women were deeply, deeply political and very, very involved.”
And Biden spoke to those values throughout his address.
“Unlike any other nation in the world, and there is no hyperbole in that statement, America is a product of its political institutions,” said Biden. This was to say, he explained that race and religion don’t form our concept of nationhood, rather the constitution does. Those ideals “are the reason why we remain the most respected, emulated revered nation in the world, notwithstanding what you hear from some others,” he continued.
“We have to remind ourselves why we’ve been able to accomplish so much,” Biden said. “Why did we earn that respect and how do we maintain it?”
He noted that the current political climate was bad for the country. “Politics today is pulling us apart at the seams; it’s gotten worse,” Biden said, calling it “too negative, too nasty, too petty, too personal.” Our system, he argued, requires compromise and willingness to see the good qualities in those who disagree with our politics. “Out of one many. That’s what the hell we are. We’re so different.”
He asked the audience to keep that message in mind. “We have to remind ourselves every goddamn day how we got here… there’s nothing self-executed about democracy.”