My 10th grade American history professor was a black Pentecostal preacher, so lectures were often lively but even the most engaging teacher can’t force 15 year olds to care about what happened 250 years earlier. I always enjoyed Mr. Davis’ class, not just for his lecture style, but because he broke things down into easy lists to learn. Five reasons the Civil War broke out. Seven leading causes of WWII. Looking back, while this made for easy studying, bullet lists don’t necessarily make history relevant or encourage students to find a personal stake in the historical narrative.
I have never had an American history class since, and for many years I did not care one iota about our past. The HBO John Adams miniseries ignited some interest for me, bringing to life the revolutionary era with details like dirt under the actors’ nails and historically-accurate undergarments, things that made me think about what life must’ve been like and not just about the bullet lists of reasons a war broke out.
Post-college I did a bunch of reading on my own. A few historical novels caught my interest, and from time to time I’d end up on a wiki rabbit hole googling some random historical event. I watched a bunch of the Green brothers’ Crash Course series, and realized I should have paid more attention in Mr. Davis’ class because history was fascinating, more relevant than I could have imagined, and provided guidance for our future.
Then a few years ago, a little musical called Hamilton came onto the scene and the American Revolution materialized in imaginations across the country through the modern language of today’s musicians (much in the same way that Shakespeare brought histories of leaders past to life through the language of the day)…. and I became a little bit obsessed.
When the idea for this road trip emerged, both Justin and I got excited about the opportunity to learn more about America’s history since we’d be driving through some of our country’s most historic locations: DC, Philly, Boston.
The first half of our trip has definitely been American History centric. We spent three nights in the nation’s current capitol, Washington DC. On our way north, we spent a few hours in Philadelphia, which served as the US capitol from 1790-1800 while DC was under construction. We stopped at Plymouth Rock, the landing spot of our Puritan ancestors, before spending four nights in Boston, the birthplace of the American Revolution. Obviously, we listened to Hamilton and spent a fair amount of time googling revolutionary events during the drive.
Below, I’ve detailed some of the historical highlights from our trip, taking you through our favorite sites, some random historical facts, and a few of the 914 Hamilton references we made during the last 10 days. 🙂
(Side note: if you have somehow managed to go the last few years without listening to the entire 2 hour 45 minute score of Hamilton, do yourself a favor: block out an evening, hook your laptop up to your TV, pour yourself a beer or a whiskey, and pull up this YouTube playlist so you can follow along with the lyrics as you listen. The show averages 144 words per minute, and if you’re not 100% familiar with your history it’s helpful to know who’s saying what. The show was originally written as a concept album meant to be listened to without ever intending to be staged, so while you will not get the full experience of seeing the show, you’ll get a damn good record listening experience that you’ll want to repeat over and over and over again.)
DC became the nation’s capital in 1790, as the result of a backroom compromise that introduced federal taxes so the federal government could assume states’ debts and help out the financially-strapped states (sung about in the toe-tapping number The Room Where It Happens from Hamilton). Before that, New York City served as the capital, and Philly was the temporary capital from 1790-1800 while DC was being built.
The capitol building itself is a thing to behold. I’d never seen it up close before and didn’t realize HOW ENORMOUSLY MASSIVE this building really is. No wonder it took so long to “complete.” The construction of the original building (not the dome part) started in 1793 and was done in 1826 (and man, I just have so many questions about how construction was done in those days without cranes and machinery). Expansions and the dome were done in 1868. Since then, they’ve had to expand it a couple more times in the mid 20th century, and added the visitors’ center about ten years ago. We didn’t tour the inside just because the lines were insanely long.
As we walked around DC, I kept commenting how much it felt like parts of Paris, with the wide boulevards, the circles from which street spokes fanned out. So much of the architecture of those buildings and the general design of the city reminded me of the right bank. And as it turns out, General Washington hired a French engineer, Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, to design the city! He didn’t want the capital to become a crowded mess of buildings, and thinking that the capital might be a stressful place where important business was being done, he wanted to provide large open spaces where people could walk and relax. Mission accomplished!
Supposedly, the Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. And even though only high-ranking government officials and congress members can check out books, ANYONE can get a reading card, so that was our mission. As a lover of the public library system, and any building full of books, this was definitely a nerdy activity just for me that my husband thankfully went along with 🙂 The whole process was super fast and easy too, which I found surprising given that government processes are rarely fast and easy. We only went in the Jefferson building, but if we return to DC, we’ll have to check out the other buildings as well.
At the end of Hamilton, when Eliza gets to tell her story and how she spent the fifty years after her husband’s death, one of her accomplishments is helping raise funds for the Washington monument. Washington was considered not just a national war hero and founding father of the country, but “the greatest character of the age” (as described by his enemy King George III). He left an important legacy for our nation, relying on advisors, setting a precedent for executive restraint, tolerated and perhaps encouraged disagreements in the interest of freedom, and stepping down from command after 8 years (The people will hear from me // One last time // And if we get this right // We’re gonna teach ‘em how to say // Goodbye), exemplifying and truly living the ideals of our new young nation. Everyone felt as if we owed so much to this man and so this obelisk was constructed. And we have no control over who lives, who dies, who tells our story, but I think Washington would appreciate his story has been told. Supposedly, no building is allowed to be taller than the Washington monument (555 feet), but in reality no building is allowed to be taller than the street is wide (plus 20 feet).
“In West Philadelphia, born and raised…” Okay, no I wasn’t but I can never hear the city name without thinking of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. 🙂 We didn’t make it to West Philly since this was just a quick pitstop on our way from DC to Elmsford, NY, but we did manage to squeeze in some good history in a short period of time.
We did zero research before arriving, yet lucked into some free tickets for a tour that was starting ten minutes later; some guy had a dozen extra and gave them to the ticket taker to pass out to anyone who wanted them. I’m so glad we arrived when did because otherwise we would not have been able to see the room where it happened: the signing of the constitution. (Now would be a good time to tune your radios to Non-Stop from Hamilton.)
The Liberty Bell was much smaller than I thought it would be (kind of like the Mona Lisa). The bell was created in 1752 and was not rung on July 4, 1776 but rather on July 8, at the reading of the Declaration of Independence. I also did not previously know that it wasn’t called the Liberty Bell until the 1830s, in an anti-slavery article.
I can’t hear the words “Plymouth Rock” without thinking of the lyrics from another American musical, Anything Goes.
Times have changed
And we’ve often rewound the clock
Since the Puritans got a shock
When they landed on Plymouth Rock.
Any shock they should try to stem
‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,
Plymouth Rock would land on them.
Times certainly have changed, but Plymouth is one of those quaint Northeastern towns trapped in time, a relic of many previous eras, providing a quiet respite from the surrounding big cities. I’m sure if we had had the chance to spend even a night here we would have met some charming folks and eaten some delicious seafood. As it were, we merely passed through to get a glimpse of America’s origins, trying to imagine what it must’ve felt like to step on these unknown shores with the goal of starting a new, free life and hoping that you’d survive the winter (many did not).
Looking at the various memorials and statues in Plymouth reminded me of something I can’t say I’ve ever truly thought about: that our celebration of a cherished American holiday, Thanksgiving, is a day of mourning for the native peoples of this land. Even if we aren’t directly responsible for or related to any of the atrocities that occurred after the pilgrims landed here or the ongoing suffering of Native Americans, we should reflect on our past and acknowledge the different world-views of people in our very diverse nation, especially those that include painful experiences so we can work together to avoid repeating them.
The Freedom Trail was way shorter than we expected so we ended up getting through it way faster than we had allotted time for. There was definitely a lot of cool stuff to see along the way, and we loved every step!
As we walked from historic point to the next, we would stumble upon pockets of history, things we would never have known (or even thought) to look for. For me, this is part of the joy of walking a city as opposed to getting rides or going on organized tours. We really enjoyed touring around by ourselves, with the flexibility of taking that alley instead of the main road, stopping to read the various memorial signs, or learning something random by talking to a local. Some of our unexpected lessons included:
- the narrowest house in Boston, known as the Skinny House, was built out of spite;
- the oldest commercial building in Boston was a bookstore (and is now a Chipotle);
- church goers used to be able to buy a pew box, and the location of the box said a lot about your social status. The boxes had walls (as opposed to being open pews) to provide privacy for worship and to keep the heat in the summers;
- Boston was founded in 1630;
- the oldest continuously operating restaurant in America is the Union Oyster House, which opened in 1826 (and JFK liked to eat there);
- the Harvard dining hall looks like Hogwarts and I’m very jealous of the freshmen who get to eat there since the dining hall at UNF was in a crappy concrete building from the 70s;
Boston, to me, is the closest we’ll get to an old European city here in America. The thing I love about walking about Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, Barcelona, is that you are literally walking through the juxtaposition of history and modern times, riding in an elevator in a building from the 1500s, paying by credit card at a restaurant that’s been there for 200 years, taking photos on your smartphone of a cathedral from Medieval times. Being able to touch history like that is one of my favorite things about traveling, and is something you don’t get in many American cities. But Boston is OLD, pretty much one of the oldest *American* places you can explore. With my newfound appreciation and interest in American history, walking the same cobblestone streets as our forebears was more special and surreal even than strolling the ancient alleys of Paris, one of my favorite places in the world.
Have you been to any of these greatly historic US cities? What are your favorite American history sites? Any fun facts you want to share? Favorite Hamilton lyrics? 🙂