Exploring the National Constitution Center

The National Constitution Center, located at 525 Arch Street and in the heart of Philadelphia's historic district, was established on September 17, 2000, with the goal of teaching visitors about the Constitution of the United States. Although the National Constitution Center does not house the original Constitution (that is stored at the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C.), you can explore the following exhibits currently on display, each helping to bring the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages.

Alexander Hamilton and his legendary rivals

Alexander Hamilton is best known as one of America’s Founding Fathers, as well as his legacy in the development of our national financial system, culminating in the establishment of the First Bank of the United States. (Although it is not open to tourists, the First Bank is a National Historic Landmark and can be found at 128 South Third Street in Philadelphia.)

Hamilton was also well known for feuding with many prominent politicians during his time. In the Constitution Center's new exhibit, Hamilton: The Constitutional Clashes That Shaped a Nation, which runs through December 31, 2019, visitors can learn about Hamilton's clash with John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Aaron Burr.

During his presidential term, many of Adams’ cabinet members were fired after they followed advice they secretly received from Hamilton. Further, Hamilton opposed Adams diplomatic success in easing tensions with France during the Quasi-War, which lasted from 1798 to 1800.

The Hamilton-Adams rift led to the defeat of the Federalist Party in the presidential election of 1800, allowing Thomas Jefferson to claim his seat in the oval office. Despite having just as many issues with Jefferson as he did with Adams, Hamilton ironically played a heavy hand in Jefferson’s win. Due to a problem with the voting system, there was a dispute over who the true winner was of the 1800 election: Jefferson or Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s running-mate. Disliking Burr even more than Jefferson, it was Hamilton who convinced the House to elect Jefferson as President and Burr as Vice President. However, this only fueled Hamilton’s conflict with Jefferson further. As an advocate for centralized government and a strong military, Hamilton opposed Jefferson’s belief in a decentralized agrarian republic.

After Jefferson won the election, Hamilton continued his legal practices in New York City. Upon hearing in 1804 that Burr was campaigning to become the Governor of New York, Hamilton launched his own campaign but eventually lost. At odds more than ever, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel on July 11, 1804, which resulted in Hamilton being fatally shot. Although there weren’t any Broadway musical numbers, the exhibit explored the controversy that plagued the highs and lows Hamilton’s career.

Civil War & Reconstruction

Another exhibit open to visitors documents the American Civil War and the Reconstruction Period. In the decades leading up to the outbreak of war in 1861, the North and South were ideologically divided over the issue of slavery; the North supported abolition while the South believed slavery was a state rights issue. Tempers rose throughout the 1850s, especially regarding the Dred Scott decision in 1857, in which the U.S. Supreme Court famously upheld slavery as constitutional. Arguing that property protection rights include people (slaves) as property, the decision further established that slaves were not federal citizens. These tensions came to a head when Abraham Lincoln, of the newly formed Republican party, won the 1860 presidential election. In a domino effect that began with South Carolina, southern states seceded from the Union until the reality of war became inevitable.

When the Civil War started on April 12, 1861, the Union and Confederacy conformed to their initial positions on the ideological divide over slavery. When the Confederacy, under the direction of General Robert E. Lee, eventually surrendered on April 9, 1865, many of the questions dominating the antebellum years were finally answered: states were not allowed to secede from the Union, slavery was permanently abolished, and the authority of the central government was paramount. However, new questions rose to replace the answered ones. Should seceded states still be considered rebel states or should they be reabsorbed by the Union? What would happen to the millions of freed slaves? Who would be in charge of overseeing this sociopolitical transformation? Following Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, these questions carried the country into the Reconstruction Period.

Lincoln’s Vice President Andrew Johnson rose to take his place as the leader of Reconstruction. However, it was this transfer of power that led to the ultimate demise of the entire Reconstruction movement. Rather than using the momentum of the Union’s victory to usher in a new era of radical human rights reform, Johnson’s vision of Reconstruction involved restoring the antebellum Union. Although he stripped southern landowners and Confederate politicians of their political rights, he granted pardons to roughly 90% of the people who asked for them. This outraged the radical wing of congressional Republicans, and they took action against him by overriding his veto on civil rights laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Ultimately, the House of Representatives voted 11 articles of impeachment against Johnson in 1868, nine of which stemmed from how his removal of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton violated the Tenure of Office Act. Johnson was the first U.S. president to be impeached.

Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson and supported the ratification of the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the federal government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous servitude. However, support for Reconstruction began to fizzle out as time dragged American society farther away from the nucleus of the Civil War. On its last legs, the Reconstruction Period ended in the 1870s and 1880s in light of the second wave of the Industrial Revolution.

We the People

Through The Story of We the People exhibit, the National Constitution Center’s main exhibit, visitors are guided through milestones in America’s history and learn how the U.S. Constitution is as important today as it was in 1787. Upon entering the exhibit, you can interact with the American National Tree, which showcases the most significant figures in U.S. history.  

Despite his reputation as a polarizing figure, one of my favorite people to read about is Cassius Clay, also known as Muhammad Ali. Best known as a famous American boxer, Ali was also notorious for refusing to be drafted in the Vietnam War in 1967 due to his religion. He publicly considered himself to be a conscientious objector, which gave him the right to refuse to serve in the military. He was eventually convicted for draft evasion on June 20, 1967, and was stripped of his boxing license and titles. Eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction, stating that it was unjust because his religious beliefs were constitutionally protected. He eventually passed away in 2016 from Parkinson’s Disease.

Plans to visit the National Constitution Center?

The National Constitution Center is open to the public every day. Click here to see more exhibits that the National Constitution Center has to offer.

Article written by Daniel Ortiz on behalf of Global Philadelphia Association

National Constitution Center photo credit: Photo by K Huff for PHLCVB