If the walls of the new President’s House exhibit at Independence Mall could talk, they would tell the stories of the men and women who made up Washington’s enslaved household:
Oney Judge, a 20-something seamstress, and Moll were enslaved maids for Martha and her grandchildren.
Paris and Giles were stable hands who toiled in the stable to meet Washington’s exacting standards for the upkeep of his prized horses.
Christopher and Austin served the president as needed in the large house.
And there was Hercules, the most privileged slave and an excellent cook who maintained strict order in the kitchen and would be allowed to sell the leftovers from state banquets to spruce up his wardrobe. He would one day escape from servitude to freedom.
But these walls do, indeed, talk. They are reproductions of Washington’s three-story brick mansion, equipped with video screens displaying actor portrayals of the enslaved staff.
The exhibit, subtitled “Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” at Market and 6th streets across from the Independence Visitor Center, is the result of an eight-year collaboration between Philadelphia and the National Park Service that included an oversight committee composed of community groups and organizations.
The exhibit, which is open-air, incorporated with descriptive panels and video, is constructed above the actual foundations of the home, including the kitchen, a portion of which is visible through a large glass-panel enclosure above — a result of recent excavations.
“This exhibit exists because people spoke out about it,” explained Jane Cowley, public affairs officer for Independence National Historical Park.
She said during an interview that both historians and civic leaders advocated for the project. The City of Philadelphia also became a “driving force” for the exhibit.
For seven years, Washington lived year-round in the elegant home, which he called “the best single house in the city,” when Philadelphia, the nation’s largest and most cosmopolitan city in the late 18th century, served as a temporary capital from 1790 to 1800 as construction continued on a federal city along the Potomac River.
According to Cowley, the design for the exhibit is the result of a design competition. The exhibit is a non-contiguous perimeter of brick walls of varying height encased with window and door frames representing sections of the home. The concept is in keeping with the National Park Service’s policy of not reconstructing historic structures.
And just how large was the presidential residence? From the 1773 insurance survey, according to Cowley, the house totaled 2,340 square feet per floor — although not all of that footage was usable space. Counting the outbuildings, the total site is 12,000 square feet.
The gracious home on a bustling thoroughfare, once owned and restored by Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris, who added a two-story bathhouse and tony Chinese wallpaper in the front parlor, is a stone’s throw from Independence Hall, known at the time as Pennsylvania’s State House, and adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center, an ironic juxtaposition underlying the fledging nation’s embracing of individual freedom while concurrently permitting slavery.
Washington enjoyed entertaining the political elite of the 18th century in the home’s expansive dining room. The bustling house, with its 20-some-member staff, grew in size during his administration to include an addition off the kitchen as the servants’ dining quarters.
Washington selected a sun-filled second-floor room in the back bathhouse as his personal office and a third-floor room in the main house as his executive headquarters.
Nine enslaved men and women were brought from Washington’s Mount Vernon Plantation in Virginia to Philadelphia to serve the first president. According to Independence National Historical Park, Washington trusted his enslaved staff, buying them tickets to the circus and theater and letting them go to the city’s markets on their own. These excursions allowed the slaves to interact with Philadelphia’s free-black community as well as abolitionists at a time when the city was a hotbed for the abolitionist movement.
Aware that Pennsylvania had enacted the Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 and that an abolitionist society flourished in the city, Washington limited the number of enslaved servants transferred from Mount Vernon.
He supplemented the staff by acquiring up to eight indentured servants, young Dutch or German immigrants who worked as kitchen help, washers, maids and stablehands. They did not earn a wage, however, as their service was in exchange for payment of transport to America.
The commander-in-chief was conflicted over slavery — he wrote to Robert Morris in 1786, “I can only say, that there is not a man living, who wishes more sincerely than I do to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery]; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority; and this, as far as my suffrage will go, shall never be wanting.”
Nonetheless, Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, mandating the return of runaway slaves and criminalizing the act of helping slaves to escape captivity, according to Independence National Historical Park.
President John Adams and first lady Abigail, who lived in the house from 1797 to 1800, never owned slaves. They lived in the house with their longtime faithful servant, Briesler, and his wife to run the household along with a salaried secretary. They hired workers from Philadelphia and Boston to cook and clean.
The president’s house during the Adams administration was without the pomp and splendor witnessed during Washington’s presidency.
(As an interesting aside: while Washington lived at 6th and Market, Adams, then his vice president, lived at Bush Hill, a country estate located about where the main branch of the Free Library is today. When yellow fever swept the city in 1793, the estate was converted into a hospital and Adams relocated to the Indian Queen Hotel.)
Because of recurrences of yellow fever, especially the 1793 outbreak, the city was deemed unhealthy and prompted the federal government to relocate the capital to the District of Columbia.
After 1800 the stately home briefly became a hotel and then shops. Extensive commercial development during the 19th century gradually left the sight undistinguishable, leaving no visible evidence that the nation’s first president once entertained heads of state there.
As for Hercules, the talented cook and perhaps the best-known of his slaves, he was sent back to Mount Vernon where he eventually went missing while Washington was celebrating his birthday in Philadelphia in 1797. Despite efforts to recapture him, he could not be found and remained a free man.
Cowley noted that the recent research and archaeology revealed new information about the site. She said, for example, that historians previously believed that Hercules had escaped from Philadelphia, when he actually fled from Mount Vernon.
The National Park Service will present a program about the President’s House on Saturday, Feb. 19, 1 p.m., in the Independence Visitor Center’s Theater, 525 Market St. The program will include a performance by an actress portraying enslaved seamstress Oney Judge and followed by a National Park Service ranger-led walking tour of the President’s House and Underground Railroad sites in historic Philadelphia.