Journey to the house where the US Independence was born
Just a few days before the United States celebrates the 341st anniversary of its birth as a republic, the National Park Service in Philadelphia has 54 sites and historic buildings that now stand as bridges to a heroic past that still defines the Spirit of national democracy.
Walking through Independence National Park, in the heart of historic Philadelphia, is a journey through the places that marked the birth of one of the most powerful nations in the world. One such site is the house where Thomas Jefferson, a young 33 years old lawyer, locked himself up for 17 days to write what happened to be the founding document of the republic: the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, a philosophical and legal treaty Philosophical that gave him a place in history.
Jefferson had arrived in Philadelphia in early 1776 as a member of the Virginia delegation to the Second Continental Congress, in which the 13 British colonies were summoned to discuss their future against the English Empire in the midst of the nascent of the American Revolution.
The young prodigy (musician, lawyer and man of letters) was part of the Committee of Five, a commission created by the congress to shape the legal document that ended up justifying - with 29 charges against King George III - the change of the political status of the colonies in front of the English metropolis.
Philadelphia was then the largest city between the colonies and the third in importance for the empire, after London and Dublin. Being the center of a strong commercial, artistic and political activity made of Philadelphia an effervescent and noisy city.
Jefferson, young but picky, set out to find a quieter place to carry out the task his colleagues in the Committee of Five had entrusted to him. It was thus that he rented two rooms (between May 23 and September 3, for a value of 35 shillings a week), to Jacob Graff Jr., a bricklayer who at 21 had built his own house on the outskirts of the city.
Located on the corner of what is now the seventh street with Market street, the House of Declaration is an attempt to replicate what may have been the home of the Graff family in the mid-eighteenth century: a four-story box, built brick by brick with a wooden skeleton, which mimics the Georgian architecture of the time.
But it is difficult to know for sure whether the current appearance is equivalent to what Jefferson saw in the summer of 1776. According to Adam Duncan, a ranger at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park, changes in property ownership affected not only the architectural memory of the place but the conservation of the original objects that were part of the rooms rented by Jefferson.
Once inside, what was supposed to be an immediate trip to the eighteenth century became a deep dive into an exercise of pure and hard historiography in which a shrill voice, catapulted from the reception desk, announced the arrival "to the House of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America! ". The man behind the counter is a dwarf ranger who, before each visitor's arrival, repeats perfectly the lines he has learned for the occasion: "It was here that Thomas Jefferson wrote the declaration of independence for two weeks."
A dark corridor on the first floor leads to an interior hallway where a bust of the author of the statement is displayed, a large-format facsimile of the document, a photographic gallery of thinkers who influenced Jefferson's ideas - English philosopher John Locke and George Mason, one of the authors of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and Constitution, as well as a montage with the three key moments of American emancipation: the writing of the document between June 11 and 28 1776; its approval on July 4 of the same year and its ratification by means of the publication of the signatures of the delegates from the 13 colonies on August 2nd.
To be a tourist destination in Philadelphia, the place is too simple and its lighting so poor that it does not do justice to the ideas that gave birth to the nation. The simplicity contrasts with the greatness of the story and reminds the visitor that today - Saturday June 24 - is the first day that the doors of this house are opened to the public after six months of forced closure due to budget cuts in the Department of the Interior - an entity that supervises the National Park Service - that, according to the ranger in the reception, reach the $ 23 million per year in order to maintain the operation of the 54 sites that make up the Independence National Historical Park of Philadelphia and the salary of its 253 rangers.
A narrow, cramped staircase leads to the second floor. Along the way, a giant mosaic of a psychedelic Jefferson looking toward a horizon captures the attention of visitors. But neither the mosaic nor the lights off are enough to hide the moisture problems that begin to peel some of the walls in the building.
The details of the street lamps and the peeling walls do not matter much. Not a full hour has passed since its doors opened and this place has already welcomed more than a hundred visitors, including two groups of high school students and a vast majority of Asian families.
In the second floor the visitor finds two spaces that represent the rooms leased by Jefferson. The curious thing is that, although nothing of what is found there is original of the time (these are mere replicas of the furniture arranged to provide an artificial sense of what happened in this lot 341 years ago), both rooms are located separately and isolated from the public by means of a glass.
The first thing that occurs to the visiting journalist is that, given the dimensions of the bed, Jefferson must have been a rather thin man of average height. The bedroom is set up in such a way that it gives the impression of observing a classic painting of the time in which it was tried to portray perhaps the exact moment in which "Declaration in hand" the Virginia man ran from the place towards the then Pennsylvania State House (now Independence Hall) leaving behind the messy bed, a pair of boots, an empty punch bag, dirty underwear in a basket and a faded jacket hanging on the closet door.
In reviewing the site, the journalist can’t stop thinking about the man behind the story. How is it that with only 33 years of age he manages to write such a definitive and resistant text? No doubt he must have had an overwhelming personality, a defiant intelligence and a judgment so strong, that it could face all contradictions.
"He was going through many things at once in his personal life: his mother had recently passed away; Jane, his younger daughter had died too; Martha, his wife, was escaping from the British army ... it is clear that his mind was more in Virginia than here in Philadelphia", Duncan points out.
Although the two rooms - the bedroom and the study - do not reflect the spirit of the author of the Declaration of Independence, its artifacts, the furniture inspired by the time and the artificiality of most objects, tell an important chapter of the history of the United States: in 17 days, a man from Virginia, known for his talent with letters, wrote the foundational document of one of the most powerful nations in the world, a document whose revolutionary ideas spread throughout the continent and changed the global political order forever.
This house, extremely simple in appearance and sadly artificial, nevertheless keeps that account that still today justifies the rebellion of men when a government attacks their most precious rights: that of life, freedom and the pursuit of happiness.
Although history makes Thomas Jefferson the author of the Declaration of the Independence of the United States, the truth is that the task of writing that text was entrusted by the Second Continental Congress to a committee of five representatives: Benjamin Franklin, for Pennsylvania; Robert Livingston, of New York; Roger Sherman of Connecticut; And John Adams of Massachusetts.
At the begining, Adams - known for his well-versed oratory skills- was called to draft the document, but the Massachusetts representative promoted Jefferson as the most qualified member of the Committee for the task.
Although there are no records that sufficiently inform how the Committee of Five worked, tradition indicates that they discussed the general lines, and Jefferson was in charged of putting together the list of grievances against king George III with which the colonies justified their separation from the English Crown.
After several revisions and corrections were made - including avoiding of any mention of slavery - the document was approved by Congress on July 4. It was until January 18, 1777, after the battles of Trenton and Pinceton that the statement was published with all the signatures of the delegates of the Second Continental Congress.