Monday, July 06, 2009

The cradle of the nation

The Fourth of July has always been a quietly powerful holiday for me, with various personal meanings. This year, it took on a new meaning - or more accurately, all the meaning it holds for me coalesced, breaking like a wave inside me as I sat on the huge stone block where the First Amendment is engraved near Constitution Hall in Philadelphia.

It started innocently: a friend mentioned he had to drive someone to the airport on the Fourth, and that he was thinking of going into Philadelphia afterwards.

"You know, because that's where it all started and everything," said my friend, who will, after spending two-thirds of his life in the country with a green card, finally become a citizen this year.

"Ooh!" I said. "That sounds like fun! I've never done that."

Despite having moved to Pennsylvania almost eight years ago (the longest I have ever stayed in one state), and despite visiting it often even before that, I've never actually gone to the city for the Fourth.

My father grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and because of that, and his family, I've been coming back to this city for my entire life. I clearly remember a trip around age 7 during which I stood inside the Liberty Bell and traced the crack with my finger. Now, I've been told that no one's been allowed to touch the Bell for decades, so maybe it was a full-size replica, or maybe my tour guide broke the rules big time. Or maybe I had a really, really overactive imagination.

But I went to see the Bell on Saturday, and for the first time read the plaque on the outside of the building. A loudspeaker was delivering the message, and it finished as I read. A little kid darted up to the other side of the window where the plaque is and pressed a button, and a delivery in Spanish started. I was unexpectedly and deeply moved.

The trip started as a lark, but as we were taking our first break from walking, sitting on a bench outside a Quaker meetinghouse, four men in extremely realistic colonial costume walked down the path. I smiled at them, startled, then recognized one of them - Benjamin Franklin. I mean, they were all in great costumes, but this man, body, face, and hair, just looked so much like Ben Franklin that it was like he had stepped out of the past.

Now, Ben Franklin is kind of my hero. He started with nothing to speak of. He showed up in Philadelphia as a starving, broke runaway. He had a year of formal schooling and a few years' experience in a print shop. He was a printer, an entrepreneur, an editor, and a community organizer. He started a hospital, a library, a fire company, a university, an insurance company, and a society of learning - most of these being innovative social contributions, the first of their kinds in the country, or at least in Philadelphia. He had great talent with science as well, which he turned to increasingly after about the age of 40. He refused to take out a patent for the Franklin stove, he said he would never run for public office, although he would take any office offered him, and he was already 50 years old when he started his career in diplomacy. Originally loyal to England, he thought of moving there permanently, but as his knowledge of corruption in the country grew, he started wondering if America should break away.

He was one of the original investigative reporters, discovering letters from a two-faced politician and sending them to the colonies to be published (in the Hutchinson affair). He contributed much or most of the thinking behind the Declaration of Independence. He was seventy when he signed it.

He was the Ambassador to France, where he helped pave the way for the French Revolution. Always ahead of himself, by the time it actually occurred, he was already back in America, writing an anti-slavery treatise.

My father assigned his autobiography to me when I was being home schooled, and he's fascinated me ever since. Any flaws aside, I think he is one of the most remarkable men ever to have lived, with one of the most remarkable minds in the history of humanity.

Seeing my childhood hero in the flesh - so to speak - gave me a sense of wonder that underlined my feeling of connection to Philadelphia, and to Independence Day. Later I found the actor outside Independence Hall and got a picture with him, which made me feel incredibly obnoxious and touristy.

Independence Day represents everything that means the most to me - liberty, equality, freedom, true justice. It's the meaning of my life, really. It's why I'm here - to understand the meaning of those ideals, to protect people who are threatened with losing them, and to help them learn to understand them and protect them in turn. I'm grateful to the people who have died for them, but I want to live for them.

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