« Return to Links page


Liberty Bell Center Exhibits       Background Information: Presidents' House

History and Interpretation of the Presidents' House 

190 High Street

1790 - 1800

Goals / Learning Outcomes / Behavioral Objectives for Interpretation at the Presidents' House Site as Developed on May 30, 2002:

The Presidents' House, 1790-1800

The Nation’s Capital

Philadelphia served as the nation’s capital for ten years during the construction of the District of Columbia. The capital moved here from New York City in December 1790 and then on to Washington, D.C. in May of 1800. Here in this city, on this block and the next, the legislative, judicial and executive branches of the United States government under the new constitution grappled with strengthening the nation during a time of international and political instability. The United States Congress and Supreme Court worked at the State House Square, today’s Independence Square, sharing space with the state and local governments. The Executive Branch represented by the first two Presidents, George Washington and John Adams, and their respective cabinets, came together at this very site, in the president’s house, to contemplate and direct the complex political issues of the day. George Washington set precedent by establishing his office at home and by receiving and entertaining a host of politicians, diplomats and civilians on this site. His two terms of office created a model that established the president as both formidable in person and accessible to the public.

The Office of President Formed in Troubled Times

Here in Philadelphia the office of the President took shape, providing the model for future generations of American presidents. George Washington set the standard by maintaining personal dignity, while appearing often in public. He kept up a regular social calendar with the elected members of Congress and appointed judges in the judicial system, but never became too familiar with them. He also created the first Cabinet as an executive advisory board. President John Adams and others to follow observed Washington’s precedent.

The decade when Washington and Adams lived here as president of the United States, the nation survived a series of political crises, while reaching to stabilize as the Western World’s first republic. France and England went to war in 1793 and both countries pressed for United States involvement. Washington declared our neutrality and later in 1795 defended a proposed treaty with England that erupted into a shrill national debate. Washington’s administration fought and won wars against Native Americans on the frontier, while trying to find a basis for peace with visiting tribal leaders here in Philadelphia. He suppressed the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, to affirm federal taxation and the authority of the Federal Congress. John Adams steered the nation from war with France in 1798 after years of contention with that former friend and ally.

The Presidents' House at Center of Government

You are standing on the site where Presidents Washington and Adams lived and worked from 1790 to 1800. The Presidents' House at 190 High (Market) Street commanded a direct view of the State House (Independence) Square, home of federal, state and local governments. The president’s office faced south from the second floor of 190 High Street, looking out over his extensive garden and stables, and, above the rooftops, at the tower of the State House. Both Presidents Washington and Adams held cabinet meetings in the house and invited city, state and federal elected officials to weekly receptions or formal dinners in the adjoining house parlors. First Ladies Martha and Abigail held informal social gatherings on a weekly schedule in season. Foreign diplomats and visiting Native American delegations to the capital often came to dine at the Executive Mansion. 

A Home to Previous Generations of Wealth and Power

The stately brick mansion that was home to Presidents Washington and Adams had known previous residents of wealth and influence. Constructed in the 1760s by Mary Masters, sister of Philadelphia mayor and prominent politician, John Lawrence, the house became the resident of Richard Penn, William Penn’s grandson, when he married daughter Polly Masters. Richard Penn lived in the house while serving as lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, 1772-1774. It is said that he won "the hearts of the people." In 1775 he sailed to England with his family bearing the "Olive Branch" petition to King George.

During the American Revolution the house served as home and headquarters for General William Howe when the British occupied Philadelphia and for General Benedict Arnold when the Continental Army reclaimed the city. Both generals lived grandly and entertained lavishly.

When the house suffered a fire in 1780, Robert Morris, wealthy Philadelphia merchant, arranged with the Penn family to buy the property and rebuild the house as his city residence. The location close to the seat of government was convenient for him as the first Superintendent of Finance (1781-1784) under the Continental Congress. From this property Morris conducted much of the critical business that pulled the nation from spiraling inflation and debt.

The City of Philadelphia selected 190 High Street as the official residence for the president in 1790 when Robert Morris stood at the peak of his fame and fortune. An old friend of President Washington’s, Morris agreed to give up his home and move with his family next door, to a house he also owned on the corner. After his 1797 inauguration John Adams also moved into 190 High Street, declining the City’s invitation to take residence in the much larger house on Ninth Street built specifically as a presidential mansion in a vain attempt to keep the national capital in Philadelphia.

Legacy of the Presidents' House House Site, 190 High Street

When the capital moved to Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1800, the President’s House lost its importance. Facing bankruptcy, Robert Morris had sold the property to a soap manufacturer, Andrew Kennedy. Morris languished in Debtors’ Prison while the house briefly opened as a hotel. Abigail Adams stayed there on her way to Washington in 1800. The house shortly fell to commercial use and was torn down in 1832 to be replaced by three stores built within the 45-foot width of the original house.

The significant decade when the nation’s first presidents lived here faded from historical memory, but has on occasion resurfaced. A recent public interest in marking the house contour on the pavement led to an extensive review of the documentary and archeological evidence. While many pieces of the puzzle fell into place, the record did not offer the necessary detail for the outline. Fascination with this historic site during the mid-nineteenth century produced several views of the house, one drawn from life just before demolition and the others as historical renderings based on collected memory. These images suggest the once stately, suburban appearance of the President’s mansion only a block from where the national government conducted state business.

Archeology at the Presidents' House Site

Federal law requires archeological investigation before new construction on government-owned property. Archeologists and historians have studied the president’s house site for evidence of the 18th century structures that stood on the property. The documentary record confirms that Washington added a two-story bay window to the south side parlor of the house and indicates that he also built a large servants’ hall onto the back wing.

Did any of the Presidents' House or the extensive series of outbuildings and extensions connected to it survive the 19th and 20th century changes to the property? Archeological investigation under what is now the entrance area of the Liberty Bell Center revealed that almost all evidence of the 18th century buildings in this area were destroyed when the presidents house was demolished in 1832 and larger buildings with deeper basements were built over the lot.

These excavations did uncover the partial remains of Robert Morris’ large icehouse that stood along the alley or back property line during the residency of Presidents Washington and Adams. Only the bottom nine feet of the 18 foot deep icehouse pit survived later construction on the site. The same later construction that destroyed the upper part of the icehouse also obliterated the foundations of the stables and other building in this area. It is possible that portions of foundations of the presidents house itself may have escaped this subsequent construction activity. This large three story brick mansion may have required foundations which extended deep enough to ensure that at lest fragments of the lower portions escaped subsequent destruction. If additional remains from the 190 High Street property do exist they will not be effected by the construction of the Liberty Bell Center and they will be preserved in place and will be available for future archeological investigation and interpretation.

Presidential Icehouse

When Robert Morris took possession of this property after the house suffered a fire in 1780, he rebuilt the mansion as his family home and added a substantial icehouse along Minor Street. After a visit to Philadelphia as Morris’ guest, George Washington wrote to request construction information on the icehouse so that he could build one like it at Mount Vernon. Morris obliged with a detailed letter describing its design.

In its day, Morris’ icehouse was a novel improvement for food preservation. Now carefully preserved underground, this documented feature of the two 18th century presidential households serves as a reminder of the heavy labor once required for tasks made simple during the Industrial Age.

George Washington’s Household

President Washington supported a large household. Between his immediate family, his staff and servants, he had to find room for more than 30 people living and working on the property. In preparation for the move to the Presidents' House, he and his secretary Tobias Lear planned for the construction of a servants’ hall and the remodeling of the house garret to accommodate them all.

The immediate family included Martha and two adolescent step-grandchildren, Eleanor and George Washington Parke Custis, but Washington also counted his secretaries and their families as part of his family circle. His secretaries were trusted men, often one or more of his numerous nephews.

Wage, Indentured and Slave Labor

Washington depended on as many as 25 servants to run his household. He employed a variety of help typically available in his day. He blended free, indentured and slave labor to accomplish the day-to-day household business. He hired mostly free white servants. These salaried workers ranged from the President’s secretaries, the steward and housekeeper at the top, to the low ranking stable hands, scullions, waiters and maids at the bottom.

President Washington also purchased indentured servants. These European immigrants agreed to work a set time in exchange for their passage to America. Indentured servants were not free until they had completed the terms of their contract. Washington visited the docks of Philadelphia to pay for the indentures of two young Dutch servants who joined the large household at this site.

President Washington’s household also included as many as eight African American slaves from Mount Vernon, his Virginia plantation, but as the opportunity arose, he replaced some of them with local hired hands. Washington depended on a few trusted and well-trained slaves to tend to his family and horses. Molly and Oney served as personal maids for Martha and her two grandchildren, while Christopher replaced Billy Lee (whose loyalty to Washington during the Revolution eventually won him his freedom) as the President’s body servant. Hercules, the flamboyant cook and master of the kitchen, made sure that the family and numerous household guests ate well. Paris and Giles, the postillions for Washington’s carriage, wore caps and colorful uniforms while riding with the President, and were expected to meet Washington’s rigorous standards for the care of his carriages, harness and several horses.

Philadelphia as Center for Abolition Movement

President Washington was sensitive to the fact that Philadelphia harbored a growing free African population -– 2000 in 1790 -- and an influential body of abolitionists who helped pass the first Gradual Emancipation Act (1780) in the new nation. While it freed no slave immediately, the act raised expectations and promises for a brighter future. The law specified that slaves brought into Pennsylvania from outside the state were entitled to their freedom after six months. Initially President Washington observed this law by sending his slaves out of state before the six-month deadline. Pennsylvania’s legislature subsequently exempted federal government employees and Congress from the 6-month law during their service in Philadelphia.

Even with this change in the law, Washington recognized the danger of bringing his slaves to Philadelphia. He had already admitted his mixed feelings towards slavery and abolitionism by writing, "no man living wishes more sincerely than I do to see the abolition" of slavery, but "when slaves who are happy & content to remain with their present masters, are tampered with & seduced to leave them … it introduces more evils than it can cure."

In Philadelphia abolitionists had made notable progress. The city’s tradition of Quaker values and religious toleration spawned a diverse population of over 40,000 people, many who sympathized with the active abolitionists. The emerging free African American community also was uniting under strong leadership. Together they created a climate that made Philadelphia a risky place to keep slaves.

President Washington’s concerns proved justified when two of his most trusted household servants gained their freedom by finding refuge in the city’s network of sympathizers, the seeds for the Underground Railroad.

Two Escaped Slaves, Hercules and Oney Judge

Two of Washington’s most valued slaves in Philadelphia took advantage of the local anti-slavery sympathy to escape to freedom from the president’s household at 190 High Street.

Hercules, nicknamed "Uncle Harkless" by the children, was a master chef for Washington’s table and a popular household personality. He escaped to freedomin 1797, at the eve of the Washingtons’ departure for Mount Vernon. President Washington made several futile attempts to locate Hercules through Philadelphia agents, but the network, later dubbed the Underground Railroad, already had sheltered Hercules’ risky flight to self-liberation. That year Prince Louis-Phillippe of France visited Washington at Mount Vernon and recorded in his journal that Hercules’ six year-old daughter replied when asked if she was sad not to see her father anymore, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."

Oney Judge, Martha Washington’s personal maid and a talented seamstress, escaped the executive household in July 1796 as a teenager. She made her way with assistance, by water up the coast to New Hampshire, where she settled, married and had three children. The Washingtons responded strongly to the news of her flight. When learning of Oney’s whereabouts, Washington asked his Secretary of the Treasury for help to recover her, explaining that "the ingratitude of the girl, who was brought up and treated more like a child than a Servant … ought not to escape impunity." The plan to "seize her and put her on board a Vessel bound immediately" to Virginia, however, was thwarted by members of the Portsmouth community, who gave Oney warning and shielded her from capture.

Years later, when she guessed her age to be over 80, Oney Judge Staines agreed to be interviewed about her life. She had escaped because she did not want to be a slave always and she supposed at the time of her decision that if she returned to Virginia, she would never have a chance to escape. At Portsmouth, New Hampshire she learned to read and was converted to Christianity. She admitted that even though she had known a hard life in poverty, she held no regrets. She had her freedom.

Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States. He had led the army that fought for the Revolution’s ideal that all men are "created equal" and have the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." And yet, he owned over 300 plantation slaves. Washington grappled with this contradiction during his later life. In the year of his death he lamented that he had too many slaves. "To sell the overplus I cannot, because I am principled against this kind of traffic in human species. To hire them out is almost as bad, because they could not be disposed of in families to any advantage, and to disperse families I have an aversion. What then is to be done?" By his final will of July 9, 1799, he freed all those people he personally owned. (Martha’s estate legally owned most of the Mount Vernon slaves). He also left instructions for his family to provide lifetime support for the old or disabled among them, as well as care for orphaned children to the age of twenty-five.

President John Adams’ Household

When John Adams moved into 190 High Street his household needs were far simpler. His four children had grown and lived elsewhere. Abigail, his wife, adamantly opposed slavery, so that the servants who kept the presidential household in operation were salaried, mostly brought with the family from Massachusetts. Polly Tailor from Quincy was maid to Abigail. John and Esther Briesler, longtime residents with the family, continued as managing housekeepers. Abigail entrusted all the hiring and firing of male servants to Briesler, while most of the female servants came with her, except "a Negro woman who is wholy with the Cook in the kitchin [sic]." Louisa Smith, a niece, helped manage the household and on occasion substituted as hostess when Abigail’s health kept her at home. Like Washington, Adams employed a nephew as his secretary and had at the minimum three or four male servants. While President Adams continued many official precedents set by Washington, he absented himself from the capital more. He often returned to Braintree in Massachusetts for months at a time, leaving the house in the care of his competent servants.


Liberty Bell Center Exhibits       Background Information: Presidents' House