PHILADELPHIA -- It has taken 200 years, but Independence Hall finally has an accurate picture of that historic hour when the Constitution was signed.
A 4-by-6-foot painting called "Signing of the Constitution" went on display yesterday at Independence National Historical Park. Commissioned by three local chapters of the Daughters of the American Revolution, the painting is believed to be the most realistic portrayal of the event to date.
"There have not been many artists through the years who have tried to depict that scene because it was a closed meeting," said Hobart C. Cawood, the park superintendent. "Not that many people knew what the room or the signers looked like."
In addition to secrecy, Ron Thomson, a U.S. Park Service ranger and historian, pointed out that artists have been hampered by creative interior decorating.
Early paintings were made after the room had been remodeled several times. During the last 20 years, historians and architects have restored the room to its original design.
Accuracy has also been hampered by popular notions of the Founding Fathers that "elevate these men to the highest levels," Thomson said. The portrait in the U.S. Capitol, painted in 1937 by Howard Chandler Christy to commemorate the Constitution's 150th birthday, mistakenly shows the signers in elaborate dress and striking lofty poses.
"These men were obviously important, but they had also been working in a hot stuffy room for four months. They would not have dressed up in those Halloween costumes," Thomson said.
The new painting shows the 39 men who signed the Constitution as well as the three delegates who refused to sign and a secretary. Artist Louis Glanzman strived to illustrate them all in more human terms.
For instance, one signer, William Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, was a notorious slob. Glanzman painted him with his vest unbuttoned and with a spilled snuff box in front of him. Another, John Dickinson of Delaware, had been ill the day of the signing, and he is shown slumping miserably in a chair.
Despite such attention to detail, the painting may not provide the last word on truth in art. "We fully expect that in 50 or 75 years, someone is going to come along and say, 'Hey, you got it wrong,' " Thomson said.
Freedom of speech has been getting a workout this week on a 5-foot-tall pile of plywood known as "America's Soapbox."
The idea behind the soapbox, essentially a glorified lectern, is to allow citizens to "speak freely on any topic they wish -- the First Amendment in action," according to a brochure of official Constitution Week events.
And they have spoken, on everything from the value of home-based teaching, the nomination of Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, and the wonders of Philadelphia cheese-steak sandwiches.
Since it was set up over Memorial Day weekend, the soapbox also has spawned a couple of regulars, including one man who urges passers-by to repent and another who reads excerpts from socialist tracts. Chris Purcell, one of five local actors who was hired to generate audience participation, said no speakers, including the few white surpremacists, have been silenced.
The roughly 3,000 people who turned out Tuesday night to honor the First Amendment's freedom-of-religion clause provided some energy to what so far has been a comparatively low-key celebration.
Following a candlelight procession from 12 Philadelphia churches, choral and patriotic hymns floated through the air, still misty with rain, as the interfaith ceremony convened across the street from the Liberty Bell.
Among the more than 50 clergy members bowing their heads in communal prayer were a pair of Buddhists in flowing pastel-colored robes, some rabbis in top-hats and yarmulkes, a Sikh wearing a tuxedo and red turban, and a Greek Orthodox primate in black vestments.
The event's keynote speaker, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, author of the principles that have guided U.S. business dealings in racially divided South Africa, electrified the peaceful gathering with an impassioned indictment of America's "de facto segregation."
The "cleavage" separating white and black, rich and poor Americans is a bigger threat than conflicts with foreign powers and demands immediate attention from political and religious leaders, he said.
"We're too self-complacent," Sullivan said. "We think somehow we'll have it made no matter what. We had better look at ourselves anew. There is a need for a new spirit in America."
Not to be overlooked in the celebration of First Amendment guarantees is freedom of the press. Former chief justice of the United States Warren E. Burger had some pointed advice last night for the American news media, particularly on their relationship with the president.
"Perhaps it is time to ask whether any president should be expected to have at his fingertips, and on the top of his head, a comprehensive and totally accurate response to every question submitted from an audience consisting of several hundred politically sophisticated media reporters, each seeking personal recognition and focusing on a single point on which he or she has carefully studied in advance," Burger said in prepared remarks for a speech before the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
Burger suggested that presidential news conferences should be limited to discussion of previously announced topics. "Then every press conference would not be open to the entire range of problems confronting the country. Possibly the evening news and morning papers would be able to focus with greater clarity and in greater depth on particular policy issues, and the media might thus be better able to fulfill its role of informing the public."