At the start of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, it seemed no founder was mentioned more than Pennsylvania’s most famous delegate to the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin.
The way House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told it in announcing the start of the impeachment inquiry last fall, Americans gathered on the steps of Independence Hall in 1787, awaiting to hear of the nation’s new government, when someone from the crowd asked Franklin: “What do we have: A republic or a monarchy?” The scientist and statesman replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Now, with the Senate acquitting Trump of all charges, visitors have used the place where the small two-sentence drama over monarchy or republic played out to reflect upon the country’s founding at this historic moment.
“People are hungry for an alternative to the partisan paralysis and clashes that are paralyzing Washington, and that is what the framers intended: A constitution shaped by the understanding of the people,” said National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen. “Whether we survive as a republic depends on self-education. That is why it is inspiring to see how eager people are to educate themselves.”
Since Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, traffic to the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution site is up 41% compared with the same period last year, according to the center.
Brian Litofsky, 48, said he’s often thought about the Constitution amid the impeachment proceedings in Washington. “You can talk about the emoluments clause. You can talk about the bribery line in the impeachment clause and all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of all relevant.”
He and his wife brought their children, Madelyn, 9, and Jacob, 7, to Independence Hall when the family was visiting from Boston. Madelyn needed no convincing that the history of this country is important. She wore her Hamilton sweatshirt.
“Since I love history we thought it would be nice to go here,” Madelyn said. “I really like tours a lot.”
Eric Knight, a National Park Service ranger who gives tours of Independence Hall, said he feels a responsibility to tailor the stories he tells to the audience, especially if there are children staring back at him.
“They’re going to be the legacy. They’re going to grow up and be voting,” Knight said. “If the kids don't get it, we don't get it. We don’t keep it.”
Looking at the 50 visitors gathered in the Assembly Room of Independence Hall as the impeachment inquiry was ongoing, Knight, 64, focused on the children pressing themselves against the railing and raising their hands. He asked: “What happened in this room?”
“They, um, signed the Declaration of Independence.”
“They signed the Constitution.”
“They talked about how bad the British were.”
Yes, that is all true, Knight, 64, told the children. But before talking about all that, he said, it was important for them to understand what it took for the men gathered here to found a nation.
“In this room we forget there were arguments, there were debates, there were sacrifices," Knight said. “More importantly, there was compromise.”
Parents said they wanted their children to see past partisan bickering and feel as though they have an active role in democracy. Showing their children the place where the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were created, parents said, was a way to bring history to life and make it relevant to the present.
Visiting "at a time when I’m worried about America’s future … there’s a sense of that, wanting my kids to understand this American experiment,” said Dan Waite, 48, of Highland Park, N.J.
Trips like this, Waite said, are a way to jump-start conversations about what it means to be an American with his children, Talea, 8; Sarina, 10; and Mateo, 13. He hoped physically being in Independence Hall would make those values less abstract than the words in a textbook.
“I have this hope we can restore civil conversation,” he said, “where we believe at least some good in each other.”
Deirdre Keogh, 44, of Braintree, Mass., tries to keep her children, Evelyn, 11, and Coleman, 9, from watching the news because “it just brings you down.”
But Evelyn sees her grandmother watching the news. ”She loves Fox News," the girl said. "She always has it on. She never stops watching it. She loves Donald Trump.”
Keogh knows her children listen to television or the radio and hear how the country is divided. She said she appreciated how Knight, the park ranger, emphasized compromise.
“I still want them to have some confidence that our government is doing the right thing for them,” Keogh said of her children. “So hopefully we can get through this time preserving that.”
As a high school teacher, Yaira Sotomayor, 33, of Cibolo, Texas, said she often thinks about how the country’s Constitution and understanding of history shapes the future. She brought her children, Analysse, 12, and Pablo, 9, to Independence Hall when the family was in town.
“I wanted them to see it firsthand," she said. "And when they actually hear the teacher in the classroom, to be able to say: ‘Oh, I’ve been there.’ ”
The president, Sotomayor and her husband said, has divided the country. She wants her children to see how, amid all of this, a document created in Philadelphia more than two centuries ago still guides the country today.
“You read the Constitution and it still applies to this day," Sotomayor said. "And we still have the system of checks and balances, and I think it really works.”
Lee Yeash, 57, hasn’t been feeling as if her one vote in Lumberton, Burlington County, would affect what happens in Washington. But while looking around Independence Hall and seeing all the other visitors, she felt included in the nation’s story.