An Indispensable Donor Memorializes America's Irreplaceable Patriots

Philadelphia's New Museum of the American Revolution is a long-overdue landmark

A hallmark of a great idea can be that it seems obvious in retrospect. But even the greatest and most palpable ideas can sometimes take a long time to translate into operating reality. In the case of the new Museum of the American Revolution, it took more than two centuries. And if not for the dedication and tenacity of one visionary donor, this memorial to America’s birth pang might yet be nothing but an appealing notion.

This year on April 19—the anniversary of the opening shots of the Revolutionary War at Lexington and Concord—the large museum opened in the historic section of Philadelphia, just around the corner from Independence Hall. It has already won admiration for its subtle neo-Georgian architecture and immersive displays. But it all started with an old tent.

In 1907, Reverend Herbert Burk was rector of a church on the outskirts of Valley Forge. An amateur archaeologist with a passion for American history and a reverence for George Washington, Burk had conceived an idea for a “Valley Forge Museum of American History.” He began to energetically seek artifacts for it. He learned that Mary Custis Lee, daughter of Confederate General ­­Robert E. Lee and great-granddaughter of Martha Washington, wanted to sell the tent that had served as ­General Washington’s mobile headquarters during the Revolution.

Sometimes called “the first Oval Office,” the tent had an extraordinary history. Treasured by Washington’s descendants, it had been confiscated along with other family heirlooms when Union troops occupied General Lee’s estate in Arlington, Virginia. During the Civil War, the tent and other seized items were put on display at the U.S. Patent Office, where they were touted as “the only purely authentic souvenirs of the greatest man in modern times.”

Some years after the war, Lee’s widow and daughter wrangled with federal bureaucrats to have the items restored to their family. At one point the Secretary of the Interior sent a polite letter to the Lees saying that he had been directed by the President himself to release the items to them. This was leaked to, and sensationalized by, the press, resulting in a Congressional inquiry which concluded that the tent was “the property of the Father of his country, and as such is the property of the whole people and should not be committed to the custody of any one person, much less a rebel like General Lee.”

Eventually the Lees did get the tent back. Looking to raise money for a ­Richmond home for Confederate widows, Mary Lee sought a responsible buyer for it. Even a century and a quarter after its historic use, the tent was fairly well-­preserved. And given its intimate connection to ­Washington, and the historical significance of all that had transpired within it, Burk was able to gather sufficient donated funds to purchase it and move it to the museum he was building in Valley Forge. Along with a collection of other Revolutionary-era items, he hoped it would inspire viewers with the ideals and bravery of the Founders.

Bursting at the Tent Seams

Over the decades, the Burk collection grew to encompass thousands of rarely seen artifacts. Its educational value, however, was constrained by its physical confinement in a church compound and by its geographical location in Valley Forge, 25 miles outside Philadelphia, with little public transportation. Every year, approximately 4 million tourists come to Philadelphia to learn about early American history. Most missed out on what the Center for the American Revolution, as Burk’s collection came to be called, had to offer.

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In this very tent, dubbed "the first Oval Office," Washington, Hamilton, Lafayette, and others made key decisions in our war of independence that led to an improbable victory and entirely new form of governance.

Make no mistake: Valley Forge is a historic jewel. But it’s off on its own—which is why George Washington picked it 240 years ago as the wintering site for his tattered army. He was confident it would be safe from easy visits by British troops out of Philadelphia.

And while there is an abundance of Revolution-era history to be found in the city of Philadelphia, from Independence Hall to the Liberty Bell to the National Constitution Center and dozens of other sites, there was no place solely dedicated to telling the full story of the American ­Revolution. In fact, startlingly, there was no major facility anywhere in America focused on that. Historian David McCullough observed that the Revolution had somehow become “the last big subject in our history without a museum.” A serious national omission.

Though the Center for the American Revolution had a significant collection of materials and some impressive backers, they couldn’t seem to agree on what their next step should be. There were fitful plans for a massive museum complex in Valley Forge, but that threatened to forever alter the bucolic character of the area, and faced predictable concerns from neighbors and preservationists. The ghosts of the patriots of 1776 needed a contemporary leader to rise up and lead them into the sunlight.

The Turning Point

One of the center’s board members at the time, an enthusiast for American history, says “the most meaningful contribution” he ever made to the organization was to resign. Not that he had anything against the organization—to the contrary. But his stepping down freed up a board seat. And the person who filled it was Gerry Lenfest.

Longtime readers of Philanthropy will be familiar with Lenfest’s extensive personal giving. A Navy veteran and lawyer who worked for Walter Annenberg, Lenfest was quicker than most to see the potential for cable television. He built a cable business and eventually sold it to Comcast in a deal that netted him well over a billion dollars. Gerry and his wife Marguerite immediately embarked upon giving away most of their wealth during the remainder of their lives, with most of their gifts focused on Philadelphia or Pennsylvania, and a special interest taken in education and American history. So it’s not surprising that the Center for the American Revolution came to his attention. “The more I learned, the more intrigued I got,” Lenfest explained to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There was no museum in the United States dedicated to the American Revolution. It was a very needed museum in the fabric of this country’s history. The more interested I got, the more involved I got.”

To date, Gerry and Marguerite have contributed more than $60 million to what is now the Museum of the American Revolution. And when Gerry was voted board chair, he poured himself into raising about that much more money from other donors. His enormous personal credibility attracted supporters at both the local and national level. The $150 million facility was built largely on private giving, and a $25 million operating endowment is now being raised.

In addition to rallying private funders, Lenfest worked to acquire the museum’s desirable location, close to the other tourist attractions. That required some scrambling. Most of the property in the area already had historic landmark status and was therefore unattainable. And thanks to the central-city renaissance then starting to take off in Philadelphia, real-estate prices were rising rapidly.

There was one piece of land that might suit, on the block next to ­Carpenter’s Hall (meeting place of the First Continental Congress) and right across the street from Alexander Hamilton’s First Bank of the United States. The bad news: it was National Park Service land, and the agency is not known for easily letting go of anything. Worse, the Park Service visitors’ center sat on the property—a long-shuttered brick edifice built for our bicentennial in the brooding Why-People-Hate-the-1970s architectural style.

Lenfest set his heart on the location. He turned his negotiating skills to untangling the many political and economic issues that most observers thought would make the site unusable. By 2010 he’d worked it out.

In exchange for the downtown site within Independence National Historic Park, the museum would donate to the Park Service a crucial 78 acres of land adjoining Valley Forge Park that Lenfest had purchased earlier. The Park Service hailed the deal as a “win-win-win.” This land exchange was “the decisive moment,” says museum president Michael Quinn. “Without Gerry’s personal leadership I have no doubt it would not have happened.”

Building commenced. Once word got out that the long-bruited museum was actually going to happen, a floodgate of personal collections and resources opened. Donors and supporters wanted to be a part of this historic endeavor.

Quinn, who previously worked at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and led the restoration of James Madison’s home Montpelier, appreciates the way the project brought people together. “We Americans are increasingly missing that shared experience. Unlike other countries, we are not a citizenry with a common history. We come from many different places. In most places, a people come together to become a state; we do it backwards. It is our state that makes us a common people. That’s why it is so important that we need to look back to and understand that Founding history to make sense of ourselves.”

In the Thick of It

To that end, the museum puts visitors physically and mentally into the context of our founding population and the decisions they had to make. From the roots of the Revolution, into open rebellion, and then through the war itself, the museum guides you through immersive scenarios from the 1770s. Who are these people? What are their lives like? What choices do they face? With creative use of multimedia displays, you find yourself in the middle of the action, from a rally at the Liberty Tree to a mob tearing down a statue of King George III. At one point, Redcoats on a life-size video screen abruptly turn their muskets on you—and fire. The immediacy of the materials, the professionally produced sound pouring from all directions, and the intimate physical spaces make the Revolution come alive.

In one room you are surrounded by the figures of various Native Americans. Who are they? They’ll tell you: Some fought for the British, some fought for the Americans, and some just wanted to be left alone. Interestingly, the Oneida Tribe (who fought on the American side) wound up becoming major contributors to the museum’s fundraising campaign.

Everywhere you look, there are authentic objects from the period. Household items, clothes, books, guns (lots of guns—it is a war museum), most in amazingly fresh condition. These everyday elements connect visitors with the men and women of the Revolution in very personal ways.

If there is one message that he would like visitors to take away, says Quinn, it’s that “it really is ordinary people who change the course of history.” This is heightened by a haunting wall featuring dozens of highly realistic, early black-and-white photos of actual Americans who were young people during the ­Revolution. These portraits, captured late in their lives after the invention of photography, allow none of the separation that often comes from viewing a person depicted in antique painting or drawing. Seeing the seasoned faces of individuals who might just as easily be passing by on the street outside and realizing “this guy fought at Yorktown” or “this woman lived here when the British occupied the city” erodes the gap that time and history have placed between us and them. Thus transported, the visitor is confronted with four “big questions” about the American Revolution: How did ordinary people become revolutionaries? How did the Revolution survive its darkest hour? How “revolutionary” was the war? What kind of nation did the Revolution create?

The museum’s design tries to bring visitors as close as possible to the electrifying feeling John Adams had in 1776 when he exclaimed: “We are in the very midst of revolution. The most complete, unexpected, and remarkable of any in the history of the world.”

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It was Gerry Lenfest who rallied funders, scouted locations, negotiated a seemingly impossible land exchange, and donated 78 acres and $60 million to bring about our long-overdue Museum of the American Revolution.

Pre-Revolutionary Colonial society would seem an alien land to the modern American. Not just because of the more rudimentary living conditions, which one might expect, but because of the stifling social structure and the constantly constraining sense of dependency built into everyday economic and political transactions. Aristocracy, patronage, arbitrary justice, and institutionalized graft shock the modern sensibility, but were inherent, accepted elements of colonial life. The American Revolution didn’t just lop one political head off of the body politic and replace it with another, as most revolutions before and after have done, but rather effected a fundamental transformation of the way individuals (or, after the Revolution, citizens) understood their place in society—and their potential.

True enough, as the museum does not shy away from showing, these ideals were insufficiently extended to women, Africans, and Native Americans. But the ideas of individual liberty, of self-­determination, of equality before the law that were eventually and rightfully claimed by all sprang from the American ­Revolution. Before the Revolution, ­America was merely the Old World transposed on a new land; after the Revolution it truly was a New World. 

The museum emphasizes the point that the ideas driving the Revolution are still being fought for. This was not some ancient struggle among people with funny hats. They were us, and their struggle is ours. 

Initial displays set the stage: Most colonials were more or less content British subjects, living in 13 distinct polities. But a sense of tension builds as various affronts (the Stamp Act, the Intolerable Acts, etc.) are presented in a series of interactive kiosks. Visitors stand under a Liberty Tree while costumed museum educators argue for and against independence. Another theater presentation puts viewers in the midst of the Continental Congress’s debates, culminating in the Declaration of Independence.

For too many students, this is where their history lessons end. Sure, they might have been assigned a little reading on the war, with perfunctory descriptions of a few battles and generals whose names are now familiar more as street names. But once the stirring cries for freedom rang out, the end result was inevitable, right?

Wrong. It is the mission of this museum to correct that misunderstanding.

Young Americans today may think the Battle for New York is a Marvel superhero movie. It was actually something far more vital, consequential, and exciting. Mere months after the Declaration,  a series of defeats forced General Washington into a daring, seat-of-his-pants escape—but for which the Revolution would have been summarily snuffed out. Freedom, the museum teaches, was brutally hard to win, and came close to being lost.

Visitors are beset by the constant penury of the Continental army, the ever-present vulnerability, shifting and uncertain international prospects, a groaningly impatient public, constant infighting, and outright treachery. They get a sense of the misery at ­Valley Forge, and the demoralizing losses in the South. In one room, visitors find themselves in Independence Hall, but under exceedingly gloomy conditions—not in the exuberant moment when our ­Declaration of ­Independence was signed there, but 18 months later when Philadelphia had been overrun by the British, and our birthing hall was occupied by hulking redcoats.

There were many times and places when the sunny ideas of liberty seemed impossibly remote, naive, maybe hopeless. The ultimate success of the Revolution was never a sure thing. The museum takes those who enter to the moments where, but for a particular decision (or stroke of luck or Providence), our dream could have ended. Human freedom and world history could have turned out terribly differently.

The showstopper, of course, is Washington’s tent. Under this shelter, Washington laid canny plans with ­Hamilton, confided emotionally in ­Lafayette, peered into Benedict Arnold’s eyes with a swirling mix of admiration and unease, and wrote beseechingly to ­Congress asking for more troops and better supplies for men fighting in rags and wanting for bullets. Within this canopy, the Revolution often appeared to be doomed. And it might have been but for the character and determination of the man who labored beneath the canvas, and then out on the field of battle.

A Mission Begins

Which brings us back to the museum’s own indispensable man. “Gerry Lenfest understood the real value of this national resource before other people did,” says Quinn. “But the most important element of his leadership was that he was never discouraged. He understood our purpose and potential, and would not be dissuaded by temporary impediments that might veer us away from the bigger vision. This was leadership based on insight, not stubbornness. Gerry is an old-school gentleman, someone you don’t want to disappoint. He is an inspiration to me and every member of the staff.”

The staff have their work cut out for them. Today, notes Quinn, “people aren’t taught as much about American history. This is a sad truth we learned at Mount Vernon: Fifty years ago, people knew a lot about George Washington. Now, they don’t. Now they arrive as blank slates.”

That is both the challenge and the opportunity for the Museum of the ­­American Revolution. In addition to serving “heritage tourists,” Quinn is optimistic that today’s Hamilton-­inspired young people are a ripe audience for information. “There is this constant interest and curiosity about the Founding, but it needs to be stoked. Most people today don’t understand the radicalism of the early American ideas. They seem commonplace to us now but they were shocking at the time.

Startlingly, there has been no major museum anywhere in the U.S. focused on telling the full story of the American Revolution—until now.

David McCullough, a museum board member, agrees. It pleases him to know that this new center “will illuminate the principles upon which our Republic was founded. There could not be a better or more inspiring place to bring people.”

The American Revolution “infused into our culture our noblest ideas and highest aspirations—nearly everything we cherish: our beliefs in liberty, equality, democracy, and the well-being of ordinary people,” says Brown University historian Gordon Wood. At last there is a teaching spot where people can be reminded where these historically rare qualities came from. And the blood shed to put them into effect.

Gerry Lenfest hopes that museum visitors “will realize the burden of responsibility of continuing this country on the principles originally espoused.” More than 250 years after the first labor pangs of self-governance surged down our continent, it’s nice to have an entity that tells the American story anew.

Tom Riley is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and vice president of the Connelly Foundation in Philadelphia.