Reopening a House That’s Still Divided

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PHILADELPHIA — The convulsive currents that roil the telling of American history have become so familiar that they now seem an inseparable part of the story itself. Here is a nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of human equality, that, for much of its first century of life, countenanced slavery, institutionally supported it and economically profited from it. The years that followed have been marked by repair, reform and reversals; recompense, recrimination and reinterpretation. Extraordinary ideals and achievements have been countered by extraordinary failings and flaws, only to be countered yet again, each turn yielding another round of debates.

And here, in this city where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed; where a $300 million Independence National Historical Park has been created, leading from the National Constitution Center to Independence Hall; and where the Liberty Bell, as a symbol of the nation’s ideals, draws well over a million visitors a year, a great opportunity existed to explore these primal tensions more closely on a site adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center in Independence park. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been squandered in “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” which opens on Wednesday.

It is almost painful, given the importance of this site, to point out that the result is more a monument to these unresolved tensions than a commemoration of anything else. After $10.5 million and more than eight years; after tugs of war between the city and the National Park Service and black community organizations; after the establishment of a contentious oversight committee and street demonstrations, overturned conceptions and racial debates, it bears all the scars of its creation, lacking both intellectual coherence and emotional power. On Wednesday the Park Service takes over the site with its work cut out for it, since rangers will have to weave the competing strands together....

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