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Even if you knew nothing about Independence Hall, you could guess that noble and important events took place here. Although these buildings are best known for their national role, they also functioned as the seat of government for the city of Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania both before and after Philadelphia was the capital of the U.S. From an architectural standpoint, the edifice is graceful and functional; from the standpoint of history and American myth, it's unforgettable. Independence Square sets you thinking about the bold idea of forming an entirely sovereign state from a set of disparate colonies and about the strength and intelligence of the representatives who gathered here to do it. For some historical context, visit www.ushistory.org, the wonderful website of the Independence Hall Association.

When the French and Indian War (1754-63) required troops, which required money, King George III believed the colonists should pay for their own defense through taxes. The colonists disagreed, and the idea that the king harbored tyrannical thoughts swept through the Colonies. Philadelphia, as the wealthiest and most cultured of the seacoast cities, was leery of radical proposals of independence. Even Ben Franklin himself, an American agent in London at the time, was wary of this scheme. But the news that British troops had fired on citizens defending their own property in Concord pushed even the most moderate citizens to reconsider what they owed to England and what they deserved as free people endowed with natural rights.

The Second Continental Congress convened in May 1775, in the Pennsylvania Assembly Room, to the left of the entrance to Independence Hall. Each colony had its own green baize-covered table (the original of which was used as firewood when British troops occupied the city in Dec 1777). The Congress acted quickly, appointing a tall Virginia delegate named George Washington as commander of the Continental army. After the failure of a last "olive branch" petition, the Congress, through John Adams, instructed each colony's government to reorganize itself as a state. Thomas Jefferson worked on a summary of why the colonists felt that independence was necessary. The resulting Declaration of Independence, wrote noted historian Richard Morris, "lifted the struggle from self-interested arguments over taxation to the exalted plane of human rights." Most of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence used Philip Syng's silver inkstand, which is still in the room. The country first heard the news of the Declaration on July 8 in Independence Square.

Before and after the British occupied the city, Independence Hall was the seat of the U.S. national government. Here, the Congress approved ambassadors, pored over budgets, and adopted the Articles of Confederation, a loose and problematic structure for a country composed of states. Congress moved to New York after the war's end, and it grudgingly allowed delegates to recommend changes to the Articles.

The delegates who met in the Assembly Room in Philadelphia in 1787 created a new Constitution that has guided the country for more than 200 years. Jefferson's cane rests here, as does a book belonging to Franklin. Washington, as president of the convention, kept order from his famous "Rising Sun Chair." Delegates were mature, urbane, and trained to reason, and many had experience drafting state constitutions and laws. They decided on approaches to governance that are familiar today: a bicameral Congress, a single executive, an independent judiciary, and a philosophical belief in government by the people and for the people. No wonder John Adams called the convention "the greatest single effort of national deliberation that the world has ever seen."

Across the entrance hall from the Assembly Room, the courtroom served as Pennsylvania's Supreme Court chamber. Like the court at Williamsburg, Virginia, this room exemplifies pre-Bill of Rights justice. For example, your ranger guide will probably point out the tipstaff, a wooden pole with a brass tip that was used to keep onlookers subdued. Other period details include little coal-burning boxes to keep feet warm on chilly days. This was one of the first courtrooms in America to hear the argument that disagreement with a political leader isn't sedition, one of the great concepts in modern Anglo-American law.

The stairwell of Independence Hall held the Liberty Bell until 1976. The ranger will conduct you upstairs to the Long Gallery. Now it's set up as a banquet hall with a harpsichord (some of the guides even play) and a rare set of maps of the individual 13 Colonies. Its view of Independence Mall is superb.

Two smaller rooms adjoin the Long Gallery. To the southwest, the royal governors of Pennsylvania met in council in a setting of opulent blue curtains, silver candlesticks, and a grandfather clock. Beneath a portrait of William Penn, governors met with foreign and Native American delegations, and conducted their everyday business. On the southeast side, the Committee Room fit the whole Pennsylvania Assembly while the Second Continental Congress was meeting downstairs. When it wasn't being used to house the assembly, it stored the assembly's reference library or arms for the city militia.

As you descend the stairs, look at leafy, calm Independence Square, with its statue of Commodore John Barry. The clerk of the Second Congress, John Nixon, first read the Declaration of Independence here, to a mostly radical and plebeian crowd. (Philadelphia merchants didn't much like the news at first, since it meant a disruption of trade, to say the least.)