The Independence Historical Trust celebrated its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, marking a half-century of private-public collaboration to preserve this region’s premier historic site, Independence Hall. As locals and tourists alike stream into the historic section of Center City this summer, they may not realize it, but they continue to benefit from this long-running collaboration.
Founded as the Friends of Independence NHP in 1972, the Independence Historical Trust has its roots in the preparations for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976. It was the first partnership of its kind, where privately raised donations are used to carry out the plans of the park service to improve this important historic site. Since then, the model has been emulated elsewhere, tying local civic leaders in with national goals.
In the years since its founding, the Independence Historical Trust has acquired more than a thousand artifacts for the Park’s permanent collection, helping to restore the space to an approximation of its 18th-century glory.
As the nation’s 250th birthday approaches (no one can seem to decide whether to call it a semiquincentennial, sestercentennial, or bicenquinquagenary) the Trust is continuing its work, collaborating with the Park Service to restore the First Bank of the United States, located two blocks away from Independence Hall.
The founding of the Bank of the United States was at the center of one of the first great political fights in American history, with Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists supporting the idea and Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists (later called the Democratic-Republicans) opposed. At the heart of the debate was what the new Constitution allowed the federal government to do, a debate that continues in various forms to this day.
Hamilton and his allies believed that the bank was necessary to establish a stable financial system, something the United States had lacked since independence. Establishing a Bank modeled on the Bank of England was a natural outgrowth, they believed, of the federal power to collect taxes, borrow money, and coin money.
Jeffersonians thought otherwise, believing that the federal government had been established only for limited purposes, and that the chartering of banks was best left to the states — if anyone (many of Jefferson’s supporters were suspicious of banks as a general matter.)
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The Federalists won in the short-term, and the First Bank of the United States building was built in 1796. It is the oldest federal building still in existence in America. Eventually, the bank’s opponents had their moment in the sun, narrowly refusing to renew its charter in 1811 when it came up for a vote in Congress. Since then, the building passed through several hands, serving as a private bank for a time before becoming a temporary visitor center for the Park in 1976.
After a significant fundraising campaign by the Independence Historical Trust, the First Bank building is planned to re-open in time for the 250th anniversary celebrations.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.