This is a road trip itinerary I put together a few years ago. It seems especially interesting at the moment, given that we have two major party political conventions taking place this week and next. There is no better time to consider a road trip that explores the birth of democracy in the U.S. From Massachusetts to Virginia, this journey will take you to a number of historic sites that played a key role in the country’s founding and in the formation of a new American government.
Boston, Massachusetts – Birthplace of Independence
An obvious place to begin is in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre and the Ride of Paul Revere are legendary moments among the 18th century events that led to American independence and you can learn about all of them along the Freedom Trail, a self-guided 2.5-mile walk that connects 16 historic sites.
The trail begins near the Boston Common and the Massachusetts State House. The early part of the walk will take you to such stops as the Old South Meeting House, where a 1773 meeting led to the Boston Tea Party; the Old State House, where the Declaration of Independence was read to the public in 1776 and near where five men were killed during the Boston Massacre in 1770; and the Granary Burying Ground, where John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere are laid to rest. Later, you’ll pass Faneuil Hall, the Paul Revere House and the Old North Church (of “one if by land, two if by sea” fame).
Together, Faneuil Hall, the Old State House and the Old South Meeting House will introduce you to the rooms and buildings where John Adams, Samuel Adams, John Hancock and others led some of the most vigorous early debates about the idea of American independence. Just off the Freedom Trail, at Fort Point Channel, the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum is being renovated and is slated to open again in the spring of 2012.
There are also important Revolutionary era sites on the outskirts of Boston, starting with Adams National Historical Park. This is the birthplace and home of two presidents: John Adams and John Quincy Adams. The first Adams was the country’s second president and one of the leading figures of the American Revolution. He was the main writer of the Massachusetts Constitution, which served as a model for the later U.S. Constitution and is today the oldest functioning written constitution in the world. The national park is in the town of Quincy and is close enough to Boston to be accessible via the city’s subway system.
The suburban towns of Concord and Lexington, meanwhile, are where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired on April 19, 1775. At Minute Man National Historical Park you can see Lexington Common, the site of the first battle, and Concord’s Old North Bridge, where the colonial militia fired the first shots against the British. These historic locations are connected by the five-mile Battle Road Trail, which also encompasses the Paul Revere Capture Site and the Hartwell Tavern Historical Area.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – Where America was founded
If the first stirrings of independence were sounded in Boston, then Philadelphia is where America was founded. This is where the Declaration of Independence was written, approved and first read to the public in 1776, and where the U.S. Constitution was debated and adopted in 1787.
Independence National Historical Park in the center of Philadelphia encompasses more than 20 sites but the main attraction is Independence Hall. It was here that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were born. As you tour the building, you can see the Assembly Room where debates were held, a silver inkwell that was used for signing ceremonies, and the Rising Sun Chair that George Washington sat in during the Constitutional Convention. Just across the street from Independence Hall is the Liberty Bell Center, where you can see the most famous bell in American history.
Many other historic sites are within easy walking distance. These include Congress Hall, home to the U.S. Congress from 1790 to 1800; Carpenters Hall, where the Continental Congress first met in 1774; Graff House, where Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence; and Franklin Court, the site of Benjamin Franklin’s home.
The history doesn’t stop at the national park. Other sites that are worth a visit are the National Constitution Center, where you can learn about the nation’s founding document via interactive exhibits; the Betsy Ross House, home of the woman who sewed the first American flag, and City Tavern, where you can still get a meal in a place that was a favorite hangout of the Founding Fathers.
On your way out of Philadelphia you may want to visit Valley Forge National Historical Park. This celebrated location was the winter home of the Continental Army during the winter of 1777-78 and is where the soldiers first developed into a more cohesive and disciplined unit. Visitors can see the home that served as George Washington’s headquarters, as well as reconstructed cabins that were used by colonial soldiers.
Virginia homes of the Founding Fathers
The next stops are in Virginia, where you can visit the historic homes of some Founding Fathers. Then we’ll circle back and end the journey in Washington, D.C.
Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello – Charlottesville, Virginia
Begin in Charlottesville at Monticello, the estate where Thomas Jefferson lived for much of his life. Jefferson first became famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence and later served as the country’s third president. Monticello is currently the only private residence in the country that is a World Heritage site. This is due not only to Jefferson’s political achievements, but also because he was a talented architect who incorporated innovative design ideas into his home. There is a 42,000-square-foot education center on site with exhibits on Jefferson’s life and work.
While you’re in Charlottesville, it’s also possible to visit Ash Lawn-Highland, the estate where James Monroe lived for a quarter century. Monroe was the fifth U.S. president and as a young adult served in the Continental Army, including at Valley Forge. Additionally, you can tour the grounds of the University of Virginia, another World Heritage Site designed by Jefferson.
James Madison’s home at Montpelier – Orange, Virginia
James Madison was the country’s fourth president and is regarded as the prime architect of the U.S. Constitution. About an hour from Charlottesville, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is Madison’s Montpelier estate. Visitors can tour the home and learn about Madison’s life and philosophies of government in an on-site educational center.
George Washington’s home – Mount Vernon, Virginia
Further east in Virginia, you can pay tribute to George Washington, the country’s first president. Several stops should interest you, beginning with Washington’s boyhood home at Ferry Farm in Fredericksburg and then his birthplace in Colonial Beach, where the George Washington Birthplace National Monument has a replica of the house in which he was born.
Then just outside of Washington, D.C. is Mount Vernon, Washington’s home for four decades. The property on the banks of the Potomac River looks much as it did when Washington lived there in the late 18th century. After touring the house, you can pay your respects at Washington’s tomb and explore educational exhibits in a visitor’s center.
Washington, D.C. – Experiencing the nation’s capital
The final stop in our road trip is the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C. For our purposes, the center of the action is the National Mall. It’s truly difficult not to feel at least a twinge of awe as you make your way past the buildings and monuments located here. If you begin at the U.S. Capitol building, it’s a 1.9-mile walk to the Lincoln Memorial. Along the way you’ll pass the White House and Washington Monument. Just off the Mall is the Tidal Basin where you can visit the Jefferson Memorial.
If you plan ahead, you can arrange public tours of the Capitol Building and the White House, which are must-see stops for anyone with an interest in American democracy and U.S. government. Also nearby is the National Archives, which is a nice way to wrap up this road trip. There, you can see original copies of the Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights on display in the Rotunda.
While you’re in the area, of course, there are numerous other attractions along the National Mall that aren’t connected to the birth of democracy but are still worthwhile stops. These include the Franklin Roosevelt, World War II and Vietnam War memorials, as well as such Smithsonian institutions as the Museum of American History and the Air and Space Museum.
Map and directions
Below is a map of this road trip. If you click on the “Birth of Democracy” link, it will take you to a larger map and detailed directions.
View Birth of Democracy road trip in a larger map
Photo credits: All photos by Bob Riel