Election 2023

Why one of the ‘most important speeches’ of Biden’s presidency took place in Philadelphia

The 46th president praised Independence Hall as a symbol of his subject matter: the “fundamentals” of U.S. democracy.

The president and first lady arriving at Independence Hall in advance of Biden's speech about democracy

The president and first lady arriving at Independence Hall in advance of Biden's speech about democracy

Evan Vucci / AP Photo
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In a sign of our very stable times, President Joe Biden came to town to talk about democracy.

Delivering a primetime speech from Independence Mall in Old City, famously known as the birthplace of the nation, the commander in chief spoke about what he sees as threats to American political traditions.


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His choice of location was no accident. Standing in front of Independence Hall was a blunt reference to said traditions, as the President decried Republicans whom he believes to be turning away from the aim of free and fair elections — and gave Philly a few shoutouts.

Biden’s speech was really about what he and his party deem threats to the post-1965, Voting Rights Act-protected era of American democracy and political violence born of the 2020 election, but being on the grounds where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were signed was symbolism too ripe to pass up, optically or orally.

About an hour before he spoke, clusters of people gathered along 6th Street and throughout Independence Mall to watch Biden’s motorcade drive down the avenue and listen to the address titled “The Soul of the Nation” — the initial catchphrase of Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign — which the White House has stressed is of great importance.

While none of the president’s paens to Philadelphia, all focused on Independence Hall, may have the virality of former President Donald Trump’s “Bad things happen in Philadelphia,” they say a lot about his message to the nation.

Biden first lavished praise on his location, saying, “Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, this is where America made its declaration of independence to the world … this is where the U.S. Constitution was written and debated.”

Like presidents past and likely future, he portrayed America as a beacon of political freedom, though one in peril with the fundamentals of that freedom under attack from “partisans and cronies,” those who cast doubt on the validity of the 2020 election.

He went on to say, “Tonight I have come here to the place where it all began to speak as plainly as I can to the nation about the threats we face.”

This quote cropped up online hours before the speech, when Inquirer reporter Jonathan Tamari tweeted the early excerpt from the 24-minute message.

A wholesale denial of violence as a political tool — addressed towards events like the Capitol riot and a recent attack on an FBI office in Ohio — was central to the message Biden got across. It was an interesting point to raise in front of the building where leaders of the revolt against the British crown did their work, as the columnist Will Bunch noted online.

Biden’s speech in “the cradle of liberty” identified “MAGA Republicans” 13 times through the speech as the primary threat to the principles of the revolutionary documents crafted in Independence Hall.

Speaking of liberty, the president brought the principle to a personal level, saying, “We the people have burning inside of each of us the flame of liberty that was lit here at Independence Hall.”

One could argue that the protesters who used a bullhorn to try to interrupt the speech, blaring its siren and shouting comments, are an instance of that flame. Biden reinforced his thesis through them, saying, “they’re entitled to be outrageous, this is a democracy.”

The current moment is a crucible in the president’s view, as he said Americans are living through “one of those moments that determine the shape of everything that comes after.”

His last reference to Independence Hall and Philly’s revolutionary history lays out the stakes of the current political terrain and the unity that, for Biden, the location ideally conjures in U.S. citizens.

Independence Hall, a fundamental site of America’s birth, symbolized what the speech, in part, was about — the political fundamentals that hold the county together.

“American democracy only works only if we choose to respect the rule of law and the institutions that were set up in this chamber behind me,” Biden said. “Only if we respect our legitimate political differences.”

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