Is Independence Hall Tower in Sync with History?

Purchase Photo View Nearby Photos Fourth Floor – Independence Hall Tower – Showing Bell Tower – Clock Room.
Wenzel J. Hess, photographer, May 13, 1929.

All these years, when we thought we were celebrating a shrine to 18th-century independence, we were inadvertently confirming something quite different: the 19th-century obsession with time. And it’s taken a toll on how we understand the past.

After a recent restoration, the giant clock in the bell tower at Independence Hall will tell time again. But it won’t tell us much about the 18th century. Many assume this tower and its clock date back to the tower of the 1750s, and believe that both were present at the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the 1770s—but they were not. The original tower at Independence Hall had no clock. Time was, literally, pushed off to the side, as seen in the illustrated engraving from 1778. The State House’s original bell tower provided a sound track for life in the 18th-century city, one measured not in terms of hours but by civic events: ascensions of royalty, meetings of legislature, protests portending revolution. One thing the 18th-century tower didn’t tell—and wasn’t intended to do—was time. Back then, the relatively mundane act of telling time was simply not valued enough to give over the most prominent, symbolic steeple in the city.

"A N.W. view of the state house in Philadelphia taken 1778," by Charles Willson Peale. (detail) The Library of Congress.

That original tower might have been important, but it was also rotten. By the time of the British surrender, the upper wooden sections had been pulled down for fear of their falling down. And for nearly fifty years, no tower rose above the rooftops at 5th and Chestnut. When William Strickland proposed a design for a “restored” steeple in 1828, his idea only vaguely resembled the lost original. According to historian Charlene Mires, a lawyer with a nearby office complained about Strickland’s initial design: “No man will be able to look at that building with its new steeple and be able to persuade himself that it represents the ancient State House.”

Strickland hadn’t set out to actually re-create the original steeple. At the level where four dignified windows once looked out, Strickland placed four glaring, back-lit faces of a giant clock to look at. In this new, rising commercial/industrial Philadelphia, Strickland’s steeple reminded the citizenry of their freedom, but conflated that message with a something new: Philadelphians, Americans, were falling under the spell of time.  And it was changing their lives.

George G. Foster, a journalist from New York, visited the steeple in the mid-century: “Clink-clank! what have we here! We go through this little door and stand in the center of the Illuminated Clock! … The wheels are as broad as mill-stones and the weights are attached to cables strong enough to fasten a steamboat to the wharf. … The pendulum, of the size of a steamer’s walking-beam, moves slowly to and fro, once in two seconds, clink clank! Morning and noon and night, Summer and Winter, up here alone in its mysterious and silent realm of wheels and springs and machinery, ever sits the brooding Spirit of the Clock.”

By the middle of the 19th century, the Spirit of Independence had begun to join with (and possibly succumb to) this “Spirit of the Clock.” According to Foster, “that which stamps itself most legibly and universally upon the [Philadelphia] character, the manners, the faces, the very costume, of its inhabitants, is the business of buying and selling, turning everything to the best possible account, and seizing hold of everything instantly by the utility handle. … The very clock on the State-House steeple appears to be calculating how much it can make by striking…”

Foster exaggerated, of course. But other Philadelphians were not in their calculations using time in the name of progress. As Philadelphia barreled forward to its destiny as a manufacturing center, time became increasingly monitored and manipulated. The city that proudly counted down its first century of independence in years, hours, and finally minutes, would soon count among its innovators the Quaker engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made efficiency a science. In Taylor’s famous time-motion studies, he broke factory jobs into component parts, used a stopwatch to measure workers’ motions, again and again, to study, then systematically enhance, productivity and profit.

When Strickland designed the tower of Independence Hall in 1828, he had no clue how profoundly the industrial mindset would come to transform the city and the nation. Strickland couldn’t have known that “Taylorization,” as it came to be called, would define the American way of life. He might have been naïve about the significance of a giant, four-faced clock in the steeple atop what was then and is now the nation’s most revered shrine. But we, with the benefit of hindsight and history, have no excuse.

The clock in the tower at Independence Hall is about the 18th century—by proximity only. Will future restorations acknowledge that fact? Time will tell.