The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> Philadelphia
Independence Hall

where the American Revolution and the United States began

Independence Hall

Early History

In 1732 the Pennsylvania Colonial Legislature authorized funds for construction of a State House in Philadelphia. Edmund Wooley and Andrew Hamilton came up with a design, and construction began that same year. The Provincial government paid for construction as they went along, so it wasn't finished until 1753.

When completed, the building had a facade 107 feet in length connected by closed arcades to wing buildings some 50 feet long. In 1750 the Assembly directed that a tower be erected to contain a staircase and belfry. By 1753 the tower was completed, and the State House bell (now called the Liberty Bell) was hung.

The Pennsylvania State House served many purposes in its first half-century, as the seat of provincial government, a banquet hall for occasions such as celebrations of birthdays of British monarchs, and a meeting place for learned societies such as the American Philosophical Society and the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Seat of Independence

Pennsylvania’s central location and relatively moderate politics made Philadelphia the logical gathering place for the First Continental. Despite resistance to independence by the Pennsylvania Assembly, it allowed the Second Continental Congress to also meet in the State House, beginning in May 1775, and it was there that the Declaration of Independence was debated, approved, and signed.

Within the State House, Pennsylvania government also changed. In July 1776, a Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention produced a constitution regarded as the most democratic among all the former British colonies, and in 1780, the Pennsylvania Assembly passed the nation’s first law mandating the gradual abolition of slavery. The State House served as capital of both the state and national governments for the duration of the War for Independence, interrupted by the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, when the building served as a jail and hospital ward for American prisoners.

In 1787, the State House served as meeting place for the Constitutional Convention, which convened in May and completed its work on a new frame of government on September 17. Then, after lengthy public debates by a ratifying convention in the State House, focused on issues such as the lack of guarantees for individual rights, Pennsylvania became the second state (after Delaware) to ratify the U.S. Constitution. The building continued as the seat of Pennsylvania government through the 1790's, but became the “old” State House after Pennsylvania followed its westward-growing population by moving the state capital to Lancaster in 1799 and later to Harrisburg.

Nineteenth Century

The State House became "surplus property" after both the state and federal governments left Philadelphia. In 1802, the second floor became the home of Charles Willson Peale's museum, which was subsequently incorporated as the Philadelphia Museum. In 1812, the building's wings and piazzas were replaced by rows of brick buildings used for city offices. By 1818, however, the City of Philadelphia had come to realize the historic importance of the building, and purchased it from the State of Pennsylvania in order to insure that it would be preserved.

When the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolution, visited the United States in 1824, he was welcomed to Philadelphia at the old State House. In the process of planning this event, Philadelphians began to refer to the first-floor east room as “the Hall of Independence” and “Independence Hall,” a name that gradually came to be applied to the entire building. The surrounding square was named Independence Square in 1825, when the city also gave names of historic figures (Washington, Franklin, Rittenhouse, and Logan) to other squares. In 1828, Philadelphia City Council also ordered a new steeple for the old State House and insisted that it resemble the original, which had rotted away four decades before.

As a public building associated with the nation’s founding, Independence Hall served as a focal point for engaging the political, economic, and social issues of the nineteenth century. Other than the first-floor room where independence was declared, through the mid-nineteenth century the building housed courtrooms where judgments determined the freedom or loss of freedom for individuals accused of crimes, apprentices who sued for release from their contracts, and African-Americans suspected of being fugitives from slavery.

During the second half of the nineteenth century, Independence Hall gradually transformed from a working government building to a national shrine. The first-floor east room became a shrine to the founding fathers in 1854 under the sponsorship of nativist politicians, who gained control of the city government that year and created new City Council chambers on the second floor. During the 1876 Centennial Exposition, the entire first floor of the building became the “National Museum,” featuring portraits and early-American artifacts. At the end of the century, when the City Council left the building for the new City Hall, the Daughters of the American Revolution renovated and redecorated the second floor in Colonial Revival style. The “row buildings” that had flanked the central structure since 1812 were replaced by archways that resembled the original piazzas and opened a view and passageway from Chestnut Street to the square.

Twentieth Century to Today

In the first decades of the twentieth century Philadelphians advocated creating expanded parks to buffer Independence Hall from its dense, heavily industrialized surrounding. They succeeded.  The resulting Independence Mall and Independence National Historical Park at mid-century led to demolition of six city blocks of buildings not regarded as “historic.” Independence Hall gained additional recognition in 1979, when it was designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). By the first decades of the twenty-first century, Independence Hall anchored a historic district devoted to tourism and civic education, including the National Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell Center, the Independence Visitor Center, the National Museum of American Jewish History, and a memorial to the President’s House and individuals enslaved there by George Washington.

Official Websites

Independence Hall Association
Independence National Historical Park

See Also

Liberty Bell
American Philosophical Society
Charles Willson Peale
Marquis de Lafayette
George Washington

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Philadelphia

This page was last updated on January 01, 2019.