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Independence Hall in American Memory Hardcover – June 21, 2002
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"A book that shows us why history matters."—The Historian
"An outstanding contribution to the study of memory places in the U.S."—Choice
"A fascinating portrait that illuminates the connection between collective memory and history, investigates how traditions and heritage emerge and change, and examines how a heterogeneous society constructs and preserves its history. The book reveals Independence Hall, the most revered symbol of the American republic, as a place of contradiction, where the nation's ideals have been both defined and contested, expanded and limited."—Pennsylvania Heritage
"This is a book I have long awaited, one that tells the life of a single building so as to illuminate American history from almost every angle—cultural, social, and political."—Mary Ryan, author of Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century
"Mires cuts a broad swath through the centuries. We see the forces of preservation and politics converge and collide, countered by the environmental dynamic of a changing urban neighborhood. We also observe how African Americans, always a vital presence in Philadelphia, took liberty's message to heart. . . . Mires's plea for understanding the public memory that historic structures shape should inspire others to follow her lead."—Journal of American History
"Mires's book frees us from any one-dimensional view of the past, and of ourselves, by showing that Independence Hall, like America, always has been and must be a work in progress."—Philadelphia Inquirer
About the Author
A former editor for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Charlene Mires is Associate Professor of History at Rutgers-Camden, Director of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities, and a corecipient of the Pulitzer Prize in journalism.
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Top customer reviews
If you visit Independence Hall today you will see a typical Georgian public building surrounded by open spaces and other buildings from the colonial to the early federal period. Mostly what you will see though is the building itself, due to the scarcity of buildings on the north side which provides lovely vistas of the structure.
The structure itself stands frozen in time. A memorial to the transition from an unhappy colony to an independent country. The building witnessed the debates and proclamations of Independence, the struggles to form a country and for ten years served as a national capital. Its architecture provided a link to the recent separation. When the capital moved on to Washington DC, the Georgian architecture was cast aside in favor of more Roman structures, as the founders sought to build the new nation on the foundations of the Roman Republic.
This book follows the history of this building and the landscape around it from its inception through its current incarnation. Besides the evolution of the physical structure it also discusses the building as symbol and the meaning and use of the symbol and its meaning through time.
What I found most interesting about this book was what you do not see when you visit Independence National Historical Park. When a building is frozen in time what is lost is what happened to it before it was frozen and the context of that journey. During the British occupation of Philadelphia the building served as a stable and a prison for captured American officers. When the US capital was moved to its current location the building reverted to a city governmental structure with a museum of natural history, and art on the second floor. This was in many ways a fore runner to the Smithsonian complex in one structure. The building did not really begin to register in the national conscious beyond the city of Philadelphia (who still owns the structure) until the visit in 1824 of Lafayette. Even after this visit the city grew up around the structure. Buildings harboring immigrants, blacks, Jews, and factories littered the landscape in many cases dwarfing the structure on all sides.
The structure really did not gain prominence in the nation as a touring destination until the 20th century with the rise of the interstate. Even then, the Liberty Bell was a far stronger symbol and touchstone of national myth and feeling.
This book is greatly enhanced by its choice of photographs which show the building and its surroundings over a period of time from its time as a small building choked in an inner city environment until its current position is international icon. While the text explains, the pictures graphically demonstrate.
This book is in the end a very interesting book because it tells the story of what you do not see when you visit Independence Hall. It tells the story of people and social movements which passed through the Hall or made it a backdrop for their live sand activities.
While the building remains standing, history pours through it, and the building has survived as a sort of crucible in which that history could transpire.
It's not the same as reading a book about the history of other structures such as the White House that has been used for a singular purpose in its entire existence. The Old State House was used for many different purposes by a variety of people...all of whom the building had different meaning and worth as a historical relic. To read about Independence Hall from this perspective has added meaning and depth to what I have been able to learn on my own. Excellent work.
Independence Hall has had many purposes over the years. Though Mires discusses all of them, her overall theme is how the United States has transformed a vibrant place for civic engagement into a static place for commemorating a brief period of history.
As this suggests, destruction is part of memory. To create Independence Mall and the historic district, the National Park Service and Philadelphia urban planners demolished commercial buildings, small factories, and rundown neighborhoods of African-Americans and Eastern European Jews. In the 1950s, Americans did not want to remember business history or social history, and they didn’t want a furniture factory outlet near an eighteenth-century shrine. Those choices are highly political.
The story here is often fascinating. Mires moves between history, how we remember history, and how our memory creates new history. It’s a readable scholarly book, very accessible to the kind of people who read the footnoted histories you find in a major bookstore. It provides an illuminating look at Independence Hall itself and at wider themes of memory.