Reporting from Philadelphia —
In school, I was taught that George Washington could not tell a lie, but I never knew that he owned more than 300 slaves.
I learned that lesson in December, when I visited the new President's House and its exhibit, "Freedom and Slavery in Making a New Nation," on Independence Mall. The open-air installation was built with brick foundation walls and framing to resemble the mansion in which Presidents Washington and John Adams lived and conducted the business of the new nation when Philadelphia was its capital.
The site honors the location and importance of the original mansion, but it also addresses the subject of slavery in early U.S. history. Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at UCLA, and the lead historian for the exhibit, said, "A whole cloud of historical amnesia is going to be swept away. This story speaks to the themes of the Liberty Bell ... [which] connects to liberty and slavery being conjoined at our nation's birth.
At the President's House, I learned that Philadelphia had the largest free black population of any city in the 13 original states, and that a law permitted any slave residing in Pennsylvania for more than six months to petition for his or her freedom. The moment a slave left the state, however, the six-month period began anew.
The George Washington revealed in the exhibit circumvented that law by dispatching the nine slaves he kept at the mansion on brief errands to New Jersey or to Mount Vernon. It was also at the mansion that he signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 that gave owners the right to recover runaway slaves in another state. Yet Washington appeared conflicted about slavery, and he directed in his will that his slaves be freed after his wife Martha's death.
The original President's House was demolished in 1832, but a large glass vitrine at the center of the stie displays fragments of the foundation, kitchen and a bay window that were unearthed during an archeoligical dig in 2007. Washington had added the window to the mansion, and it became the model for the one in the oval office at the White House.
The bone-chilling temperature and low winter sun contributed to the exhibit's somber mood. A granite wall is etched with the names of Washington's slaves who worked and lived at the mansion — Austin, Christopher, Giles, Hercules, Joe, Moll, Oney Judge, Paris and Richmond — and five motion-activated video screens, mounted above the brick fireplaces, tell their compelling stories. I was captivated by the tale of Oney Judge, a 17-year-old slave who fled before Martha could ship her to Mount Vernon as a wedding present for Eliza Custis, her granddaughter.
The remaining slaves never escaped Philadelphia. However, Hercules, Washington's prized chef at President's House, did escape from Mount Vernon in 1797.
Across the street at the National Constitution Center, I voted for Abe Lincoln as my favorite president. George Washington currently has the most votes, but I wondered if he would remain everyone's favorite.