Independence Hall in American Memory
Independence Hall in American Memory

Paperback Edition: December 2013
ISBN 978-0-8122-2282-1

University of Pennsylvania Press

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Independence Hall is a place Americans think they know well. Within its walls the Continental Congress declared independence in 1776, and in 1787 the Founding Fathers drafted the U.S. Constitution there. Painstakingly restored to evoke these momentous events, the building appears to have passed through time unscathed, from the heady days of the American Revolution to today. But Independence Hall is more than a symbol of the young nation. Beyond this, it has a long and varied history of changing uses in an urban environment, almost all of which have been forgotten.

Independence Hall in American Memory rediscovers and chronicles the lost history of Independence Hall, in the process exploring the shifting perceptions of this most important building in America’s popular imagination. According to the author, the significance of Independence Hall cannot be fully appreciated without assessing the full range of political, cultural, and social history that has swirled about it for nearly three centuries. During its existence, it has functioned as a civic and cultural center, a political arena and courtroom, and a magnet for public celebrations and demonstrations. Artists such as Thomas Sully frequented Independence Square when Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital during the 1790s, and portraitist Charles Willson Peale merged the arts, sciences, and public interest when he transformed a portion of the hall into a center for natural science in 1802.

In the 1850s, hearings for accused fugitive slaves who faced the loss of freedom were held, ironically, in this famous birthplace of American independence. Over the years Philadelphians have used the old state house and its public square in a multitude of ways that have transformed it into an arena of conflict: labor grievances have echoed regularly in Independence Square since the 1830s, while civil rights protesters exercised their right to free speech in the turbulent 1960s. As much as the Founding Fathers, these people and events illuminate the building’s significance as a cultural symbol.


“The author of this volume has written a book that shows us why history matters. …”
— Jonathan M. Chu, University of Massachusetts-Boston, in The Historian


“… In the hands of a scholar and former journalist, irony jumps off of every page. … Mires adroitly shows general readers that the building was compiling a complex record that future generations of Americans might not want to remember very closely.…”
— Wayne Bodle, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, in The Public Historian


“… This book is important to preservationists who wish to understand the movement’s larger context, and to public historians who may better understand the ways the environment itself serves as a medium of communicating historical interpretations. …”
— Michael Holleran, University of Colorado-Denver, in The American Historical Review


“… Solidly constructed, nicely detailed work. Mires’s plea for understanding the public memory that historic structures shape should inspire others to follow her lead. …”
— Robert E. Cray, Montclair State University, in The Journal of American History


“… Mires’s detailed and carefully researched history places her squarely in the growing field of public memory. …  She examines everything from the building’s architectural style and visual representation to its relationship with the surrounding cityscape and the diverse communities that occupied its halls. The result is a model for memory studies – one that can be applied to both public and private sites. … ”
— Briann G. Greenfield, Central Connecticut State University, in Winterthur Portfolio


“… Wonderful and insightful … Required reading for all of us engaged in the work that we call historic preservation.”
— Dwight T. Pitcaithley, chief historian of the National Park Service, in CRM: The Journal of Heritage Stewardship


“Charlene Mires liberates a great American shrine from the bounds of Georgian brick.  An archaeologist of memory, she sifts the rich layers of meaning and remembrance embedded in a single building.  In Mires’ hands, preserving and interpreting Independence Hall becomes as dynamic a story as the nation-building that occurred within its walls.”
— Tony Horwitz, Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and author of Confederates in the Attic and other books, pre-publication review

“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, Johns Hopkins University, author of Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City During the Nineteenth Century, pre-publication review


“ … Evocatively written, well illustrated, and effectively underpinned by appropriate theory and references, this is an outstanding contribution to the study of memory places in the US. General collections and upper-division undergraduates and above.”
— B. Osborne, Queen’s University at Kingston, Choice Reviews


“… Mires’ 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.”
— Randall M. Miller, St. Joseph’s University, in The Philadelphia Inquirer


“ … Skillfully mining a lode running through history and memory, Mires discovers a treasure trove on the life of Independence Hall. … Independence Hall in American Memory is such good reading; its rich texture shows us that the old statehouse was much more than the important events of 1776 and 1787.”
— James M. Lindgren, SUNY-Plattsburgh, in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography


“ … One of the strengths of Mires’ work is the creativity and depth of her research … effectively employing newspapers, state and city legislative journals, court records, novels, promotional pamphlets, town histories, graphic images and maps, Fourth of July proceedings, diaries, architectural blueprints, television and radio transcripts, presidential speeches, and United Nations reports….”
— Matthew R. Hale, University of Mississippi, in The Journal of the Early Republic


“Perhaps never before has the publication of a book like this been more timely, when a nation is struggling over what to do with the physical land and the memories of Ground Zero. … Definitely five claps of the bell of approval.”
— Ray Browne, Bowling Green University, in The Journal of American Culture


Independence Hall in American Memory is a stellar book. Charlene Mires presents an important, engaging and highly readable account of Independence Hall. She also tells much that is significant and intriguing about the story of Philadelphia and the development of the American nation. The book is fascinating and wonderfully written. …”
— Five-star reader review on

“A fascinating history of Independence Hall in Philadelphia in a different style than the normal textbook discourse. … 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. … ”
— Five-star reader review on