In junior high, I often dozed through American History class. My teacher, Mrs. Skinner, dutifully shared important dates and events. But mostly I remember her droning, monotonous voice and the way she wrote in all caps across a dusty chalkboard.
Our nation’s past offers intriguing characters and plenty of action, though kids may need an extra push to get excited about our founding fathers. But in these historic Northeastern cities, storytellers await. During a recent summer road trip, our 12- and 15-year-old daughters discovered George Washington’s church pew and looked over Boston from Bunker Hill Monument. Learning history in 3D meant leaving boring textbooks behind. My sister-in-law aptly dubbed us the Painter Patriots.
Philadelphia: Birthplace of democracy
Spanning 20 city blocks in downtown Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park preserves many of this city’s historical treasures. First, I introduce the girls to the Revolutionary era’s Power Girl, Betsy Ross. At the Betsy Ross House, we learn more about the famous seamstress, upholsterer, and businesswoman. A lively docent quickly recruits our older daughter to hold up an American flag.
“Long may that flag wave in freedom,” she cries. “Hip, hip, huzzah!” we cheer, admiring the handiwork. An enterprising widow who supported seven children, Betsy Ross even made musket cartridges for the Continental Army.
One day, she welcomed George Washington and other members of a secret committee from the Continental Congress. Ross cut a five-pointed star in a single snip, dazzling the visitors. We peek into the parlor where she received the Flag Committee and in the bedroom where she sewed the nation’s first Stars and Stripes.
My husband remembers touching the Liberty Bell as a kid. But today, families view it from behind a guardrail. Still, gazing upon this bronze beauty was a highlight for our kids. It’s smaller than expected, yet a powerful symbol to those who worked for freedom. On July 8, 1776, the Liberty Bell summoned Philadelphians to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. With the inscription, “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants Thereof,” it became a symbol for abolitionists and suffragists, too. We discover that the crack in the Liberty Bell resulted from a repair job to restore tone and prevent spreading of a smaller crack. You can learn much more at the adjoining museum.
At Independence Hall, we stand in the Assembly Room before tables that hold quills and candlesticks. This room was once the hub of debate over states’ rights, slavery, and a new executive branch. Here, Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and the U.S. Constitution in 1787. In another area, a painting depicting the men in heated discussion, some even scowling, helps visitors fill in the scene. The girls note that shaping the constitution was neither fast nor easy. They’re paying attention; our trip is proving worthwhile. The Great Essentials Exhibit displays surviving copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution of the United States, along with the silver inkstand used during the signing of the Declaration and Constitution.
The Nation’s Church
Next we visit Christ Church, known as “The Nation’s Church” because of the famous Revolutionary-era leaders who worshiped here. Founded in 1695, it was the first parish of the Church of England in Pennsylvania. In fact, the carved wooden arms of King George III still hang here. With great excitement, we squeeze into George Washington’s pew, then find those of Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin, too, imagining their prayers for a budding republic. At one time, the Christ Church tower and steeple made this gracious structure the tallest building in America.
At the Benjamin Franklin Museum, kids meet an inventor who pondered electricity and loved a good chess match. We roam through cool interactive exhibits, even play a tune in front of Franklin’s glass harmonica. At Franklin Court, we admire the Ghost Structure that outlines the place where his house once stood. Our girls pop inside the B. Free Franklin Post Office and ask the clerk to hand-stamp several postcards, just as one would have when Franklin was postmaster. At the Print Shop, National Park Service rangers demonstrate printing techniques, and we purchase a freshly printed copy of a declaration signed by John Hancock.
In 1792, Congress recognized the need for a new monetary system and created the United States Mint. Today, government employees strike new quarters as we watch from 40 feet above the factory floor. The girls enjoy learning about the design process. One of the America the Beautiful quarters — it celebrates the Great Smoky Mountains National Park — is minted here.
Next Stop: Boston
Cobblestone streets, Mother Goose’s gravestone, the Swan Boats, all are part of this historic city’s charm. From beautiful Boston Common to funky Cambridge, we soak up the area’s offerings.
Walking the Freedom Trail
Stepping out of the subway, we begin our visit at Boston Common, where we purchase tickets for a Freedom Trail tour. The 2.5-mile trail winds through downtown Boston and includes 16 sites significant to the city’s Revolutionary roots. The trail is dotted with restaurants and shops, but a good guide takes you back in time, evoking the fear and determination that energized the patriots. The Old South Meeting House is especially interesting, with its 3-D model of colonial Boston. The Boston Tea Party started here, when Samuel Adams, speaking in secret code, signaled the patriots march to Griffin’s Wharf where they dumped tea into the harbor.
At Granary Burying Ground, we spy tombstones displaying a skull with wings, a Puritan representation of the soul flying to heaven. Our guide jests, “At the bar across the street, you can find a cold Samuel Adams. You’ll find one here, too.”
Paul Revere in the North End
Though our paid tour ends at Faneuil Hall, we discover free tours are offered by the National Park Service. We tag on with a ranger (and retired history teacher) who tells us that Paul Revere never actually made it to Lexington on his midnight ride. We stop by the Old North Church in the North End, where Revere hung two lanterns signaling the advancement of the British along the Charles River. For lunch, we walk back to Faneuil Hall, where the patriots debated. It remains an open meeting hall, in addition to being a marketplace filled with dozens of yummy food vendors.
In neighboring Charlestown, the girls climb to the top of Bunker Hill Monument and peer down on the area where a colonel cried, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!” Though the British ultimately won here, the Battle of Bunker Hill revealed the determination of Colonial forces.
While in Boston, take time to savor the city’s character. Stretch out on the grass in the Boston Common, stroll Beacon Hill’s quaint cobblestone streets, or cruise around the Public Garden Lagoon in its famous Swan Boats, one of our favorite memories.
On our last day, we head to back to Charlestown’s Navy Yard to board the U.S.S. Constitution, the world’s oldest commissioned warship. We figure our fabulous trip is coming to a close. But then we discover free sailboat rides being offered in the harbor. Soon we’re on the water for one last adventure. As we view the beautiful city skyline, the girls ask, “When can we come back?”