To start your trip to America’s only World Heritage City off on the right foot, explore this selection of moments from the Museum of the American Revolution’s critically acclaimed exhibits.
From the first stirrings of conflict with Great Britain, through the ratification of the Constitution and onward, the Museum presents the stories of people who participated in the American Revolution and how it evolved over a roughly 30-year period. As you explore the Philadelphia area using this guide, we invite you to reflect on how those early discussions by American colonists defending their liberties, and the revolution their ideas gave birth to, continue to shape our lives today.
After your Museum visit, we also encourage you to use our collection of itineraries and maps at AmRevHQ.org to plan your visit to other Philadelphia-area sites related to the American Revolution.
Through our “Road to Independence” galleries, visitors can gain a sense of the growing conflict with Great Britain that led to the American Revolution. New taxation, frontier conflicts, and threats to the power of colonial governments encouraged American colonists to reconsider their rights and liberties as British subjects. Rising tensions led to protests, some of which turned violent, and Great Britain tried to suppress the American unrest with military force. In 1774, delegates from twelve colonies met in Philadelphia’s Carpenters’ Hall to form a Continental Congress and coordinate resistance to British authority in America. Visitors to the Museum can see the speaker’s chair used by the First Continental Congress, a rare surviving artifact of this early moment of American government. The Congress went on to order a boycott of British goods and encourage colonial military training. The next year, the Revolutionary War broke out and the Second Continental Congress met at the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall.
Carpenters’ Hall is a treasure in historic Philadelphia. It hosted the First Continental Congress in 1774 and was home to Franklin’s Library Company, the American Philosophical Society, and the First and Second Banks of the United States. Set humbly back from Chestnut Street, the Hall has been continuously owned and operated by The Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, the oldest craft guild in America, since 1770. A landmark Georgian building with historic artifacts, both architecture enthusiasts and history-buffs can enjoy this trip. Free to visit, closed Mondays year-round, closed Mondays and Tuesdays in January and February.
Revisit the history of the Continental Congress thanks to the guided tours of Independence Hall run by the National Park Service. Independence Hall still features rooms preserved as they would have been during the war era and displays important artifacts, including the original inkstand used to sign the Declaration and an original draft of the Constitution. As you walk the halls in which the Founders debated and shaped the early American government, you can relive some of the most dramatic moments of the Revolution. Tours are free, but tickets must be obtained on the day of your visit through the Ranger’s Desk in the Independence Visitor Center at 6th and Market Streets (or in advance at nps.gov).
The Museum’s exhibits encourage visitors to learn more about the men, women, and children who participated in the struggle for American Independence. Realistic life-size tableaux help bring their stories to life. One recreated scene depicts the reunion of the now-famous portrait painters, Charles Willson Peale and James Peale, on the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River during the “darkest hour” of the American Revolution. The scene captures the harrowing state of the Continental Army in December 1776 following its desperate retreat from New York. James Peale had served as an officer under General Washington as the Continental Army suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of the British Army. When James’ brother, Lieutenant Charles Willson Peale, arrived at the banks of the Delaware to reinforce Washington’s army, he did not recognize his own brother and later claimed the sight of the American Army that day was “the most hellish scene I ever beheld.”
Second Bank of the United States and the Philadelphia Museum of Art
If you enjoy the story and work of the Peale family, you can find plenty more of their works, as well as paintings from other Revolutionary-era artists, around the city. The Second Bank of the United States, located in Independence National Historical Park just one block from the Museum, houses an important collection of historical portraits in an exhibition called “People of Independence,” featuring more than 100 portraits by Charles Willson Peale. Admission to the Second Bank portrait gallery is free. For an even deeper dive into the art of the period, the world-famous Philadelphia Museum of Art hosts a collection of Colonial-era paintings, artifacts, and furniture gathered from Philadelphia and the surrounding region.
Museum Exhibit: Hessian Headgear
Recommended Day Trip: Washington Crossing Historical Park
Still celebrated today, General George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night 1776 was a desperate gamble. The crossing launched an attack on a garrison of 1,500 Hessian soldiers, well-trained German troops who were fighting alongside the British Army, in Trenton, New Jersey. Washington’s gamble paid off. At the Battle of Trenton, his army captured nearly 900 Hessians. Washington followed up on his victory by winning two more battles in New Jersey within a 10-day period. Those victories saved the American Revolution from failure and encouraged more Americans to join the fight for independence.
Many of the Hessian troops that fought the Continental Army during the Battle of Trenton wore caps decorated with brass plates like these. After the battle, tattered American soldiers gleefully took the distinctive military headgear from their Hessian prisoners, celebrating their victory and mocking the defeated enemy. Surrounding the brass cap plates on display in the Museum are exhibits discussing the importance of the battle in Washington’s war effort, as well as the life of a typical Hessian soldier.
Washington Crossing Historic Park
Washington Crossing Historic Park features the site where General George Washington and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, to march to Trenton, New Jersey. Located just 30 miles north of Philadelphia, a short drive from the Museum, the park offers more than 500 acres of American history, natural beauty, and family fun. Events are held here throughout the year, including Christmas Day Crossing, General Washington’s Birthday, Charter Days, Harvest Days, and a Fourth of July Celebration. The park also features the nineteenth-century village of Taylorsville and outdoor recreation and picnic areas.
Museum Exhibit: Privateer Ship
Recommended Day Trip: Independence Seaport Museum
The War for Independence was fought on many fronts, including at sea. The Continental Congress created a navy in 1775, but, with little money and very few ships, it could not hope to match the power of the world-renowned British Navy. To counter British naval might, Americans instead relied heavily on privateers—privately owned vessels licensed by Congress or the state governments to attack British ships and disrupt trade. They paid their crew and investors by offering “prizes”—the cargo and assets of captured ships. Approximately 70,000 men served aboard privateer ships during the American Revolution, compared to only about 3,500 who served in the Continental Navy.
Visitors are encouraged to climb aboard the Museum’s life-size recreation of a privateer ship, built to scale and with great accuracy with the help and partnership of the ship builders at the Independence Seaport Museum. Explore the ship gallery for original artifacts used by American sailors, including the telescope of John Paul Jones, the “father of the U.S. Navy.”
Independence Seaport Museum
The Independence Seaport Museum is dedicated to educating visitors on the maritime history of the Delaware River. The exhibits cover a variety of topics for museum-goers, including the conflict between American sailors and pirates, the founding of the U.S. Navy, and the history of the African-American experience on this major naval artery. A short walk from the Museum of the American Revolution, ISM is located on the Penn’s Landing Waterfront and features a number of life-sized ship models as well as actual, docked maritime vessels that visitors are welcome to board and explore.
Museum Exhibit: The March to Valley Forge by William Trego, 1883
Recommended Day Trip: Valley Forge National Historical Park
The Continental Army struggled to survive during the infamous winter encampment at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in 1777 and 1778. A few months prior to their arrival at Valley Forge on December 19, 1777, the British Army captured Philadelphia. The loss of the city had disrupted supply lines and left soldiers struggling for shoes, food, and clothes. General Washington warned Congress that without supplies, the Continental Army must “starve, dissolve, or disperse.” Despite Washington’s fears and widespread sickness, most of his soldiers remained. With professional military training by a Prussian military officer and Continental Army volunteer, Baron von Steuben, the troops emerged from Valley Forge as a strengthened force.
You may recognize this iconic painting of the Continental Army’s arrival at Valley Forge. Painted by Philadelphia artist William B.T. Trego in 1883, the scene captures the mood of the soldiers as victory in the Revolutionary War seemed to be in doubt. Visitors can see the original painting on display at the Museum in an exhibit devoted to Washington’s leadership and the experience of the soldiers who encamped at Valley Forge.
Valley Forge National Historical Park
The site of the 1777-1778 winter encampment of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War is now a center for the preservation of, and education about, that period. With over a thousand acres to explore, there’s plenty of activity at Valley Forge, including encampment tours, natural trails, children activities, and historic programs.
Once you’ve visited the Museum and decided which historical sites you’d like to visit next, feel free to check back at AmRevHQ for more sites to round out your trip. Whether you’re looking for a place to eat, family friendly locations, or the best of Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, AmRevHq and the Museum of the American Revolution can help you discover the history the city’s revolutionary history.