Was that a life-sized statue of President George Washington in a toga? The white, purple edged, flowing robe would have been the apparel of choice in the Roman senate or on the steps of the Roman forum in the days of Julius Caesar about two thousand years ago. But here in the United States of America it seemed a little incongruous! This piqued my curiosity. I entered the Portrait Gallery adjacent to Independence Hall, Philadelphia.
The portrait gallery is in the fabled Second Bank of the United States building. This bank was established after the charter for the First Bank of the US had expired. Things were fine at first until Nicholas Biddle, the president of the bank crossed paths with Andrew Jackson, the then President of the US over matters of policy. This led to the infamous “Bank Wars” in which Jackson ultimately prevailed and succeeded in shutting down the bank.
There are several excellent busts and portraits of presidents and notables of that period; George and Martha Washington, Dolly Madison, Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant and John Paul Jones, to name a few. Hence the name; Portrait Gallery.
One cannot but be impressed by the architecture modeled on the Parthenon in Greece, the white, soaring Doric columns and the barrel vaulted ceiling. As I walked in I saw a statue of George Washington draped in a Roman toga. The founding fathers, many of whom were aristocratic and erudite had studied the writings of Cicero and Cato. Their thinking was influenced by the ancient Roman Republic, especially Romans like Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. He was a simple farmer who lived around 458 BC. He exchanged his plowshare for a sword to defend the republic in time of war. After the victory he was asked to rule as dictator but he declined. He went home and took up his plow again. He became known for his virtue and humility and had a profound influence on George Washington, who after his own two terms as President, returned to private life at Mt. Vernon a la Cincinnatus.
When King George III of England heard that his erstwhile enemy was going to retire, he said “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” There is perhaps a lesson here, that of letting go in the fullness of time. Perhaps we should revisit with real seriousness term limits for senators, congressmen, judges and people in positions of power and influence. There are term limits for presidents, with good reason. Why not for the others?
The Roman Republic and the senate had a great influence on Washington and his colleagues. This inspired William Rush, who knew the president well, to portray him draped in a Roman toga. The revolutionary band formed a fraternal society, the Society of Cincinnati, to commemorate the epochal events of the American Revolution and the ideas thereof. Washington was also the first president of the society. The badge of the society can be seen pinned to his uniform in his portraits. The state of Cincinnati is also named after Cincinnatus.
The restrooms were in the basement and I was struck by the thick walls and brickwork of the low vaulted ceiling. This was a bank of the still new nation and security was a concern then as it is now.
I stepped outside and headed for the Constitution Center. En route I saw the statue of the “Signer”, inspired by George Clymer, one of the signers of the Declaration. This statue is dedicated to all who devoted their lives to the cause of American freedom.
The Constitution Center at the north end of the park is in a modern building of glass and concrete with an eye catching silhouette. On that day there was an exhibit on the 19th amendment and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Appropriately so. Unfortunately, tickets are needed to visit the center which have to be obtained in advance. I made a mental note for a future visit as I took pictures of the tall spire that could be seen in the distance and the famous words “We the People,” inscribed on the building.
I had been on my feet for hours and was getting hungry. I took a last selfie in front of Independence Hall and headed back towards Jefferson station.
On the way I picked up a gyro sandwich from one of Philadelphia’s famous food carts. I saw the City Hall, once imposing, but now dwarfed by modern high-rises around it.
Jefferson station is a large station with several entrances but because of COVID related restrictions, many were closed. This necessitated some last minute, frantic searching for an entrance. Eventually, with a little help from friendly locals, I entered the station, bought my ticket and sat on a bench to enjoy a much needed lunch. Mercifully, the return train was delayed by a few minutes. I leisurely finished eating, boarded the train and was home in time for afternoon tea.
It had been a very satisfying, educational, post-pandemic tour of Independence Hall, a place I had not seen close to home.
End of the Independence Hall series.