Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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V Sixth and Arch to Second and Arch

V Sixth and Arch to Second and Arch Betsy Ross House 239 Arch Street

A lot of Philadelphians don't like Betsy Ross and won't say why. Maybe it shows I am not a true Philadelphian. because I don't know the secret. But I have personal reasons for doubting the premise. More likely it has to do with Arlen Specter, who gave himself credit for getting the funds for the Philadelphia colonial revival, and that seems largely true. So maybe it traces to having several husbands of different religions. but you could say the same of lots of other colonial dames, notably Katy Greene. Possibly they don't like Betsey for being the last surviving Free Quaker, and giving herself the remainder, but she needed it and somebody had to get it. Maybe it was because she was a Quaker and Quakers have a tradition of taking your medicine in silence, regardless of short-term consequences.

In any event, Betsy was a heroine, a Quaker, and an Episcopalian, but she didn't quite pull it off. This is her part of town, her survival. and she did her best in trying times,

Same thing with Specter. He wanted people to think the Philadelphia Revolutionary revival was his accomplishment, and that was only partly true. But it was partly his accomplishment, and let's let it go at that. During a speech Senator Arlen Specter "let it slip" that he had a lot to do with obtaining federal financing to establish the new Constitution Center on the north end of Independence Mall. Probably more important, he intimated that his wife, Joan Specter, did a lot of domestic agitating to see that it happened. The earmarks were his, the fingerprints were hers.

Some have worried about a Center telling the Supreme Court telling the world what the Constitution means because the Justices see that as their unique function. The point that is sensitive is the emphasis on the words. "We the People" which could be seen as urging easy modification of the document by shouting demands or repetition of certitudes without passing due process.

The second floor of this enormous new building is devoted to some very skillful exhibits relating to certain features of Constitutional history. The many auditoriums are the site of public lectures and programs, and there is a very interesting set of life-sized bronze figures of every member of the original Constitutional Convention. A striking feature of this display is how short and inconsequential Hamilton and Madison seemed to be in person, while Ben Franklin and Gouverneur Morris appear imposing. These things matter in politics.


Just across Fifth Street, (in the Christ Church Episcopal graveyard) is the gravesite of Franklin and his wife. This is the site every wintry (Apri 21) morning when the organizations Franklin founded re-enact his funeral march. ending with a speech, a luncheon, and a celebration. It's as close as you might come to remembering Franklin's funeral at age 84, and being gently reminded simultaneously that Franklin was a deist, not a Quaker, not an Anglican. And you do sort of get the idea that Franklin was possibly the most remarkable man who ever lived.


Going down Arch Streett from Fifth to Fourth, you can visit the orthodox pacifist Meeting House, its interior largely unpainted and grimly plain -- quite different from the effect of pristine simplicity of the Free Quakers. If you go inside the meetinghouse, a quiet and unprepossessing Quaker will be more than happy to give you a magnificently short and simple explanation of what Quakerism is all about. In passing down Arch Street, glance at the warehouses on the left, covering the site of what was once a major factory for shoes and uniforms for Union soldiers in the Civil War.


Behind the buildings on the Eastside of Fourth street, as the ground slopes sharply to the river, you can sense the rough-tough feeling of the mid-Nineteenth Century. Looking three blocks further on Second Street, Charles Dickens might have felt entirely at home. Looking three blocks further you can see St. George's Church, the (you heard it correctly) oldest Methodist Church in the world, its view unfortunately obscured by the approaches to Ben Franklin Bridge.


If you reverse course up Arch Street, you will pass the building once said to have been the house of Betsy Ross. When the Free Quaker meeting was "laid down", it had to define a purpose for the funds and assets of an inactive church, and the selected purpose was to care for the poor. According to the records, the first recipient of such charity was Betsy Ross. Anyone who knows Quakers might initially assume there was nothing irregular about this. Money designated for indigents would be used for real indigents, no matter what others may say or think. So this little scrap of paper is taken to be a footnote to her personal history, until proven otherwise.

Originally published: Friday, December 27, 2019; most-recently modified: Monday, December 30, 2019