Independence National Park in 2026

David Murrell writes on Independence National Park, worth reading this Independence Day weekend:

The City of Philadelphia, which technically owns Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell (more on that later) and profits immensely from the park’s tourism, is guilty of neglect, too. Over the past decade, it’s given a total of $76,000 to the park — less than the annual salary of a single police officer.

But perhaps most damning of all is the widespread apathy toward the park, which seems to be shared by just about every Philadelphian. Is there something missing in our genetic code? People in Boston and Washington, D.C., have a certain historical pride baked into their DNA — even though neither of those cities has the place where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the building where the Constitution was debated, or Alexander Hamilton’s central bank. We care more about sports, food and Rocky than our historical significance. Perhaps a Freudian psychologist would trace this apathy back to when our young city lost its status as America’s capital in 1800.

In 2026, the United States will turn 250. It seems self-evident that the entire country’s attention will shift to Philadelphia, as it has for every significant anniversary in American history: the Centennial in 1876, the Bicentennial in 1976. Will our city’s crown jewel be polished in time?

When you take a tour of Independence Hall, you’re meant to absorb the following bit of American gospel above all else: that the United States is a grand experiment, its brand of federalism a shining beacon for all other governments to follow. What they don’t tell you on the tour: The federalism celebrated in American lore is also the precise reason why Independence Park is foundering. …

“Philadelphia has, literally, the best stuff in the nation,” she says. “I just can’t imagine that everyone shouldn’t be sending all their dollars to fix it and make it even better.”

It could happen. The world got a glimpse of widespread civic-mindedness in April, when the Nôtre Dame cathedral burned in Paris. Residents streamed into the streets as flames burst from the spire. One onlooker told the New York Times in a moment of despair, when the building’s fate still hung in the balance, “Paris is beheaded.”

Parisians arguably have every excuse to be more apathetic about their history than Philadelphians are, considering France’s wealth of historical sites. Yet $1 billion was raised for Nôtre Dame in the two days after it burned. To the French, the cathedral wasn’t merely another famous building — it was the soul of Paris, the lifeblood of the city. Would people be similarly devastated if Independence Hall caught fire?

We tend to think of historical buildings as just that: old, fixed in time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their pasts may already have been written, but they straddle past and present in equal measure. Each dollar Walker solicits for the First Bank or Independence Hall becomes part of those buildings’ legacy; each tour MacLeod leads widens their story. And we seem to have forgotten that ours is an active inheritance — it must be maintained. There are few consistent lessons across history, but this one is most apt: Just because something is here today doesn’t mean it will be here tomorrow.

American independence’s roots

Happy Independence Day! I was in Washington last July 4th, when I shared the Oneida Indian Nation’s narrative of their role as America’s first ally, and John Paul the Great’s reflection on America from his 1995 visit in Baltimore. This year we’re at the National Mall for President Trump’s “Salute to America” address.

I’ll share Charles G. Mills’s reflection on the Declaration of Independence:

The main draftsman of the document was Thomas Jefferson, probably a Deist, but it blended the thinking of Deists, Puritans, Anglicans, and a Catholic, all of whom shared a belief in natural law and of traditional English liberty.

This day, however, did not come in a vacuum or suddenly.

Englishmen, after a few unsuccessful attempts, founded a permanent colony in Virginia in 1607, and in Massachusetts in 1620. For about a hundred years the inhabitants of the English colonies thought of themselves as Englishmen, Scots, Welshmen, and Irish. In the early 1700s, they all began to think of themselves also as Britons. Indeed Georgia, the last of the colonies, was created as a British, not an English colony.

Americans began to think of themselves as American, not British. In 1753, the French in Canada invaded what is now Ohio. This led to the French and Indian War from 1754 to 1763. This left the Americans with a bad taste in their mouths from the British Army. Americans played a major role in our victory. George Washington won one of the major battles. The colonies sent large militias to war. Massachusetts alone sent eight regiments and two generals. The British Army, however, did not recognize the ranks of American generals, colonels and majors, treating them as mere captains. The conduct of the British soldiers was a scandal to the pious American militiamen.

The British government wanted to keep its troops in America after the war but wanted the colonies to pay for them. In 1765 it passed the Stamp Act, which repudiated the long-established practice of having American taxes determined by colonial legislative bodies and replaced it by taxation by the British Parliament. The Stamp Act was so unenforceable in enough of America that it was repealed and replaced by laws giving a monopoly of the tea trade in America to the East India Company and taxing the importation of tea into America.

This led to a number of hostile acts on both sides. Some Bostonians threw a shipload of tea into the harbor and burned a ship. The British cancelled the Charter of Massachusetts, blockaded Massachusetts, and fired on and killed several people on the streets of Boston. The Americans convened a Continental Congress to provide some America-wide policy. At that time, it decided not to declare independence or to elect an American Parliament.

Open war broke out in 1775. By the summer of 1776 it was clear that America and Great Britain should go their separate ways. A Continental Congress was reconvened. Most of it favored independence, but America’s leaders wanted unanimity. With some difficulty it was achieved. There were a number of Americans who would remain loyal to Britain for the rest of their lives. Some went to Canada, some found a way to get along with an independent America.

There was probably a pro-British majority in Georgia, but Georgia decided to send the only Georgian who was familiar with the question of independence to the Continental Congress, thereby achieving unanimity of the states. In the end three Georgians signed the Declaration.

On July 4, the Declaration of Independence, mostly the draftsmanship of Thomas Jefferson of Virginia, was signed. Virginia, New York, and New England provided most of the main spokesmen for independence. Charles Carroll of Maryland, the most prominent Catholic layman in America, signed, probably one of the reasons that religious liberty would grow so quickly after independence.

The war would continue until 1783, when Great Britain finally decided that the cost of continuing it was too great. It would take more than another five years for us to get a Constitution and Bill of Rights. It would take another war (1812-1815) with Britain before Great Britain decided to leave us alone.

The Declaration of Independence was a revolutionary idea, but it was also a carefully written justification of American independence under both natural law and English Common Law. It is over 250 years old, but it has aged well and deserves careful study by not only students but all Americans.

 

‘It’s probably not replicable’

I remember heading to the polls in Philadelphia on Election Day in November 2016 and being surprised by the fact that there was simply no line at the Center City polling station. I had been there in 2012 when Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney, and there was a line out of the door. If there wasn’t high turnout for Hillary Clinton in Philadelphia, I thought, she might not have a certain victory in Pennsylvania.

What I witnessed that Election Day was a case of a depressed and unmotivated Democratic voter base handing the vote to its opponent in a critical state. And that happened in every state it needed to happen in for Donald Trump to win the presidency. And so it’s always been doubtful that he could be keep office, in the fact of a highly energized opposition:

A university election model that predicted the blue wave in the House in 2018 almost to the seat is predicting a big loss by President Trump next year due to an explosion of bitter partisanship and Trump hate.

An election forecast model designed by Rachel Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, predicted that Trump will lose the Electoral College 297-197, with 270 of 538 needed to win.

Three key states that helped push Trump over Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2016, despite her winning the popular vote, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, will turn back to the Democrats, she said.

“Trump’s 2016 path to the White House was the political equivalent of getting dealt a Royal Flush in poker,” said Bitecofer. “It’s probably not replicable in 2020 with an agitated Democratic electorate.”

That partisanship, added to the spark in anti-Trump protests by liberals and even left-leaning independents, is likely to overwhelm the increase in GOP voters, she said.

“The country’s hyperpartisan and polarized environment has largely set the conditions of the 2020 election in stone,” Bitecofer said in a release. “The complacent electorate of 2016, who were convinced Trump would never be president, has been replaced with the terrified electorate of 2020. Under my model, that distinction is not only important, it is everything,” she added.

Her model in 2018 predicted a 42 seat House Democratic pickup, and the Democrats won 40. Most models did not predict such a big victory.

Whether you think this is a good thing or a bad thing, what remains true is that your own life, your own family, and your own community all matter a thousand times more. It’s worth staying focused on what matters most over the 18 months to come, and as much as possible mentally bracketing the noise of the campaigns.

Rooted, mobile, or stuck

Gracy Olmstead has a new monthly newsletter “Granola” arrived for the first time in my inbox this week. Granola focuses on place, books, and community. Here’s an excerpt:

“Though I grew up among these complex communities built on the exchange of homegrown and handmade goods, my emotionally tumultuous teenage years separated me from it and my nights were spent dreaming of better futures in a city nearby.”

Darby Weaver writes the above lines in a lovely article about agriculture and the importance of raising up a new generation of farmers—but many youths who grew up in rural America could identify with these sentiments.

We may leave home because we’ve developed different religious or cultural beliefs than our small-town communities; we may leave because we don’t see job opportunities where we grew up. Maybe our homes were broken, and we need to start over someplace else.

But whatever the case, this rural exodus is proliferating in our time. At the end of April, Congress’s Joint Economic Committee “Social Capital Project” released some important findings on the geography of brain drain in America:

“Rather than more-cosmopolitan and more-traditional residents intermingling within states, swaths of the country may become more exclusively home to one or the other camp. The places remaining when families with the most resources move to opportunity can be left entirely bereft of community.”

You might think rural places are going to decline and die out, no matter what we do. (If you do, you are definitely not alone—here are just two recent arguments for rural and post-industrial America’s inevitable collapse.) But personally, I believe the proliferation of “winner-takes-all” urbanism is not good for our ecological, economic, or cultural health—and we need to be thinking about solutions.

Richard Florida divides Americans into three groups: “the mobile,” who have the means and education to move toward opportunity, “the stuck,” who lack resources and are thus forced to remain in place, and “the rooted,” who have the resources to move, but choose to stay instead.

We can fight rural brain drain by increasing incentives for people to stay in place (or return home), thus growing the ranks of the “rooted”. But I would argue that the answer must also involve growing opportunity and social capital for the “stuck”: giving them opportunities to flourish in their home soil.

In his newly released book Dignity, Chris Arnade considers the lives of those who remain in America’s “forgotten” places. Arnade left a community like this when he was young, as part of the mobile class that sees staying put as a “form of failure.”

“I left my rural hometown and got into elite schools, which got me into elite jobs, which got me into an elite neighborhood,” he writes. But Arnade admits that his acceptance into this elite class resulted in a narrow understanding of the world: “We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured—community, ­dignity, faith, happiness—were largely ignored ­because they were hard to see, especially from so far away. … It didn’t occur to us that what we valued wasn’t what everyone else wanted.”

Dignity pushes us to consider what our society might owe to the “back row” Americans who’ve decided to stay put, not matter the cost.

Granola and Chris Arnade remind me of this observation from G.K. Chesterton on the difference between Richard Florida’s “mobile” versus “rooted/stuck” communities:

The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men.

The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.

Subscribe to Granola.

New York over 29 years

A few years ago, I saw someone share photos of a few Chinese cities that have been developed out of (more or less) empty landscapes over the space of a decade or so. Here’s an older version of that before/after perspective on New York from The Sun, showing the city’s skyline from 1880-1909:

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Now look at this as a metaphor for your life. What can you build over the next 29 years, and how can you change over the next 29 years?

Right causes of happiness and sadness

Fr. George Rutler, of the Church of Saint Michael in New York, writes in his weekly column:

A remarkable quality usually taken for granted, is that humans can laugh and cry unlike other creatures. “Risibility,” the ability to laugh or smile, is a defining trait of humanity. The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.

All sane, moral behavior has the pursuit of happiness as the goal of life. Sadness is the recognition of what impedes that goal. As long as we are in a broken world, happiness will be elusive to a degree, and at best will be “felicitas,” which means real but impermanent happiness.

Ancient Greeks … spent time studying human dispositions. They were good psychologists. Their gods and goddesses were essentially symbols of human characteristics. There were many deities who represented varying attempts at happiness, although some of their philosophers, like the Cynics and Stoics, did not think there was much of a chance at felicity. There were, for instance: Bacchus – drinking; Hypnos – drugs; Hermes – sports; Dionysius – partying; Aphrodite – sex; Tyche – good luck; Hygieia – health; Thalia – comedy; Momus – silliness and gossip; and Nemesis – revenge on enemies.

Saint Paul was familiar with that ghostly pantheon and politely confronted their clients in Athens. He did not mock or insult them. But he did declare to them that he knew the one true God who is the source of all true joy and for which those idols were lame substitutes:

Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31)

Most of the philosophers were unmoved because they liked hearing themselves and none other. But one of them, Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris, and “a number of others” accepted Christ. Their stories are unrecorded, but as Christ never lied, we know that they inherited a happiness higher than felicitas, and that is beatitudo—the endless joy of God’s presence.

“The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.”

Hospitals as places for charity

April Munday writes on Medieval hospitals:

Hospitals might not be something that you associate with the fourteenth century, but most towns had one, if not two. Many were founded in the twelfth century and were the result of both the First Crusade and what might be considered a spiritual revival at that time.

Hospitals were religious institutions. Monasteries and convents had always had infirmaries where sick and elderly members of the community were cared for. From the twelfth century that care was extended formally to the community beyond the walls of the abbeys. Hospitals were usually staffed by monks and nuns, but sometimes a physician was employed as well.

Medieval hospitals took many forms. They could be hostels for pilgrims, hospices for the dying, almshouses for the aged poor, or a hospital for the sick poor. They were founded as acts of charity. …

Hospitals were mainly for providing hospitality, which is where the name comes from. They were often called a Maison Dieu or Domus Dei. In English they were called God’s House. The hospital was a house because it was always part of a religious community, a household with God at the head. There are the remains of one near where I live dating back to the twelfth century. A God’s House was essentially a large hall where people could lie along the walls in beds. It had a chapel for prayers and mass.

In a hospital there would probably be a fire. Patients might have to share a bed, so the chances were good that you would catch something worse than the reason you were there in the first place. On the plus side, the floor and the sheets would be washed often, and mutton was prescribed, regardless of the illness. The inmates would probably be bathed as well as having their hair washed and their beards trimmed regularly.

I read someplace recently that it was only something like 70 years ago that it became more likely that a patient entering a hospital would leave the hospital restored to health—and that a major reason why so many are still so wary of receiving medical care likely has to do with a lingering cultural memory of hospitals as places not of life, but of death.

Whatever the case, the role of hospitals as places for charity is something lost in the present debates over the costs of healthcare delivery and one’s ability or right to medical treatments.

Knight ‘Public Spaces Fellows’

Knight Foundation has established “Public Spaces Fellows:”

Launched in February, the program recognizes leaders, experts, and practitioners who are dedicated to developing public spaces that create or strengthen civic engagement. Selected from more than two thousand candidates, the seven fellows will receive $150,000 each in flexible funding as well as opportunities to learn from one another, share lessons, and raise their work up to a broader audience.

The 2019 class of fellows includes Anuj Gupta (Philadelphia), who as general manager of Reading Terminal Market has spearheaded engagement initiatives designed to bring people of different backgrounds together around food; Eric Klinenberg (New York), who recently served as research director of Rebuild by Design, a federal competition aimed at generating innovative designs in a region affected by Hurricane Sandy; Erin Salazar (San Jose), founder and executive director of Exhibition District, a women-led arts nonprofit that works to create economic opportunities for artists at the intersection of public art and community; Chelina Odbert (Los Angeles), co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit design firm that advocates for community participation in public space development; Kathryn Ott Lovell (Philadelphia), commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and an advocate for “citizen-centric” service; Walter Hood (Oakland, California), creative director and founder of Hood Design, which practices at the intersection of art, design, landscape, research, and urbanism; and High Line co-founder Robert Hammond (New York), who had the foresight twenty years ago to reimagine what an abandoned elevated railbed on the west side of Manhattan could become.

New York’s High Line is the obvious standout in terms of the project with the clearest public impact, but each of these fellows provides a model for how people might respond ambitiously and with a conserving spirit to build upon the best part of the existing built environment of their community and potentially transform it in the process.

Modes of inquiry have natural limits

Darren Warren writes on infinity:

The term “infinity” was an invention of the Devil. This, gentle reader will understand, is my humble opinion. Or if the Devil didn’t invent it, he “evolved” it, from the more innocent usages that conveyed “unlimited,” or “countless,” or “unknowably” large or small. What is finite has an ending, can be finished, finis. What is infinite cannot be; it is open-ended. There is, where we look for an end, nothing there.

Nothing is quite the opposite of something. Perhaps this is a fact no longer taught in our schools: that “nothing” can do nothing for you. Whereas, “something” might. For in its modern usage, “infinity” has become a thing. It has become “virtually” an agent, a kind of god, demanding to be worshipped. The very Christian idea of Alpha and Omega — from the first to the last letter of the (Greek) alphabet, from beginning to end — is subtly replaced in our minds with the progressive idea, “from one to infinity.”

Which is where the human mind checks out. “So what is infinity plus one?” one asks. There can be no answer. Today we are hanging on a cross of “infinity.” …

While I’m in a position to deny being a mathematician or a physicist, I distantly descry the tragedy of string theories, “many-worlds,” and even the assumptions behind the standard model of particle physics. My intuition is that they involve the breakdown of logic and reason; that they create maths that “work” on their own premisses, but do not apply to anything. At some point, the “reality” of math takes leave of the reality of reality, and we find ourselves spending billions of dollars to equip the hunt for a “theory of everything” that can only be an artefact of a phantom.

And that is what our “infinity” has become: a thing, when it is not a thing. By those uncomfortable with the holy simplicity of God, a substitute has always been sought. In the days before Cantor it was sought in the belief, the “settled science,” that the material universe had no beginning and will have no end. Once that error collapsed in the empirical cosmology of the 20th century, the Cantor hypothesis kicked in. Except, it is not an hypothesis. It is the brilliant imposition of a “number theory” that reconceives math as an empirical science; that can intrude upon what is really only a tool or technique of science with the appearance of an absolute. …

“Infinity,” when it takes on divine qualities, becomes an idol. The same might be said for the term “evolution,” which has conquered the realm of biology, and subverted all the social sciences and humanities by reckless analogy. It is the “infinity” of biotech. Anything for which the cause can’t be known, is assumed to have been caused by “evolution”; whereas, evolution isn’t a cause, and never can be. It can only be a trend.

Instead of the naïve, nursery notion of a great bearded father in the sky, we get “the theory of evolution.” Instead of the loosh habit of attributing anything we can’t understand to God, we get the mentally ill habit of attributing it to bushy-faced Darwin. Instead of the something of God, we get nothing, to explain everything.

I thought of two things in reading this. First, Pope Benedict XVI’s observation that, “even when he rejects or denies God, the thirst for the Infinite that abides in man does not disappear. Instead, he begins a desperate and sterile search for ‘false infinities’ that can satisfy him at least for the moment.” And second, Bishop Robert Barron’s frustration Stephen Hawking for arguing that “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing” and “the laws of nature” tell us that the universe could have “popped into existence without any assistance”:

Within philosophy, “nothing” designates absolute non-being, right? The absolute negation of being of any kind. But when the theoretical physicists use the word “nothing,” they’re using it in a highly equivocal way. They’re not intending by that word absolute metaphysical non-being. They’re talking about really a very rich and fecund field of energy out of which these subatomic particles emerge. …

Look, all of the sciences are predicated on the assumption that there is a fundamental intelligibility about being and “laws of nature” is just a way of saying that. That there is an intelligible structure to reality at the ordinary level of our experience and at the most fundamental level of theoretical physics. And Hawking is calling those, for sake of argument, “the laws of nature.” I want to know where those come from! I want to know how it’s just the case that reality is explicable in terms of densely complex mathematical intelligibilities. And all of the sciences assume it—they don’t prove it, they assume it, they rest upon it. Where did those come from? I want to know that.

When we look to any one branch of knowledge to explain everything, we’re forgetting that different modes of inquiry have specific competencies and natural limits. When we look to any one branch of knowledge to answer questions beyond the competencies of that branch of knowledge, we’re playing ourselves.

Leonine concludes

Since October, I’ve been attending monthly sessions of the Leonine Forum at the Catholic Information Center on K Street, along with about 45 other Washington fellows:

During a year-long program of intellectual and spiritual seriousness, the Leonine Forum educates these men and women in the core tenets of the Social Teaching of the Church and its practical application, and invites them into a larger community of Leonine Alumni and leaders committed To integrating those teachings within their professional and civic lives.

Intellectual Formation

In monthly sessions led by Catholic thought leaders from around the country, Leonine Fellows grapple with some of the most important questions at the intersection of faith and public life.

Spiritual Development

Living a fully-integrated Catholic life is an activity not only of the mind, but also of the body and spirit. Accordingly, Leonine Fellows will have the chance to supplement these intellectual endeavors with opportunities for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, and spiritual direction.

Cultural Engagement

Leonine Fellows have opportunities to engage with the broader culture as informed and articulate advocates through civic engagement, service work, and employment and networking opportunities.

Community Service

Understanding that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, Leonine Fellows and Alumni have the opportunity to participate in service work as a group on a regular basis.

Last night I attended the tenth and final session for our cohort at The Yard in Eastern Market. Leonine has been a great experience, with speakers ranging from Arthur Brooks and George Weigel to Mary Hasson, Fr. Dominic Legge, Carter Snead, Ryan Anderson, Stephen P. White, Chad Pecknold, Fr. Paul Scalia, and others.

I think applications are open for most, if not all, of next year’s cohorts.