Reopening a House That’s Still Divided
PHILADELPHIA — The convulsive currents that roil the telling of American history have become so familiar that they now seem an inseparable part of the story itself. Here is a nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of human equality, that, for much of its first century of life, countenanced slavery, institutionally supported it and economically profited from it. The years that followed have been marked by repair, reform and reversals; recompense, recrimination and reinterpretation. Extraordinary ideals and achievements have been countered by extraordinary failings and flaws, only to be countered yet again, each turn yielding another round of debates.
And here, in this city where the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were signed; where a $300 million Independence National Historical Park has been created, leading from the National Constitution Center to Independence Hall; and where the Liberty Bell, as a symbol of the nation’s ideals, draws well over a million visitors a year, a great opportunity existed to explore these primal tensions more closely on a site adjacent to the Liberty Bell Center in Independence park. Unfortunately, those opportunities have been squandered in “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” which opens on Wednesday.
It is almost painful, given the importance of this site, to point out that the result is more a monument to these unresolved tensions than a commemoration of anything else. After $10.5 million and more than eight years; after tugs of war between the city and the National Park Service and black community organizations; after the establishment of a contentious oversight committee and street demonstrations, overturned conceptions and racial debates, it bears all the scars of its creation, lacking both intellectual coherence and emotional power. On Wednesday the Park Service takes over the site with its work cut out for it, since rangers will have to weave the competing strands together.
But consider what opportunities there were. The construction of a new $9 million exhibition space for the Liberty Bell drew attention to this adjacent site, where the nation’s first two presidents — George Washington and John Adams — had lived between 1790 and 1800, when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital.
The house had long ago been demolished — much of it in the 1830s — and in the 1950s the site, near Sixth and Market Streets, was the location of a public restroom. But the house was once one of the grandest mansions in Philadelphia. Its inhabitants included Richard Penn (grandson of the Pennsylvania colony’s founder); the British general William Howe (who occupied Philadelphia while Washington’s army licked its wounds in Valley Forge); Benedict Arnold (who may have begun his espionage here); and Robert Morris (a financier of the Revolution). All vanished history.
Then, in an illuminating 2002 article in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, the historian Edward Lawler Jr. mapped out the house and its probable dimensions, and pointed out the irony that just steps from the new Liberty Bell Center was a site that had once sheltered Washington’s slaves.
The Park Service contested some of his conclusions and refused to outline the footprint of the lost President’s House in its designs for the center. But the issue was soon taken up by scholars, including Gary B. Nash, author of the new book “The Liberty Bell,” as well as by political activists like the lawyer Michael Coard and his Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, who argued that the existence of slave quarters adjacent to the city’s paean to liberty demanded major commemoration.
There was a cascade of events, chronicled by The Philadelphia Inquirer, including Congressional legislation and financing, city oversight and funds, an expansion of the Liberty Bell exhibition, the establishment of an oversight committee and the solicitation of redesigns. In 2007 an archaeological dig began, revealing the foundation and the remains of a tunnel once used by servants and slaves. The dig, viewed by the public, ignited debate.
Washington ultimately took nine slaves to Philadelphia from Mount Vernon, where more than 200 slaves were held. And they were part of a household staff that may have numbered two dozen, including white indentured laborers and servants. Though the slaves were part of a population of nearly 4,000 others in Philadelphia, there were also more than 6,500 free blacks in the city in 1790, and Washington’s slaves were exposed to the experience of liberty.
We know some astonishing details about the effects. Ona Judge (here called Oney), a servant to Martha Washington, and Hercules, the household cook, both escaped to freedom.
Some of Washington’s most unattractive characteristics also emerge. He and Martha Washington pursue Judge for years, though she later establishes herself with her own family in New Hampshire. And though Washington expressed his opposition to slavery, and freed his own slaves in his will, he went through bizarre machinations to ensure that the slaves he took to the nation’s capital would not be subject to local laws granting them freedom after six months. He exchanged them with others at Mount Vernon, issuing instructions: “I wish to have it accomplished under pretext that may deceive both them and the public.”
So here we not only have the father of our country showing his darkest side, we also see the foundations of the nation at their darkest. Yet here is where Washington invented the executive branch, conducting affairs of state. Here is where it became clear that a democratic ruler was no king, had no claim on his dwelling place and was himself meant to serve the people.
How, then, should such a site be developed? A 2005 call for designs stressed that it would have to pay attention to many themes: the house, its workers, the executive branch, African-American Philadelphia, escapes to freedom. In addition, it noted that community discussions led to five “cultural values” that should be clear: identity, memory, agency, dignity, truth. There was also a requirement that the site be open 24/7 to visitors.
As ultimately designed by Kelly/Maiello, the site is a space bounded by a low wall roughly outlining the footprint of the house (but often departing from it), marked by protruding rectangular slabs into which are inserted mock fireplaces and video screens. In the house’s heart, a transparent wall allows visitors to view the archaeological work in progress. And attached to the walls are either long panels surveying historical themes — the executive branch, slavery in the President’s House — or rudimentary illustrations. A few show the escape of Judge, a few give some glimpse of foreign policy in the house (protests over the Jay Treaty with England), and more give some sense of slavery (including Washington’s signing of the Fugitive Slave Act, which put all escaped slaves in danger).
“History is not neat,” we read. “It is complicated and messy. It is about people, places and events that are both admirable and deplorable.” And the President’s House, we are told, “exposes the core contradiction at the founding of this nation: enshrinement of liberty and the institution of slavery.”
But what precisely is being exposed? A few yards away, the Liberty Bell Center discusses abolition and slavery; the park’s visitor center has an exhibition about the Underground Railroad; the nearby African American History Museum has a powerful audio and video history of blacks in Philadelphia. Accounts of slavery are even found at Mount Vernon.
Here, though, we get neither a sense of the place, nor a sense of the issues (and much of the year, the open air will be inhospitable). We don’t learn about the differences between Washington and Adams. We don’t learn much about the pictured events. There is no real narrative. Illustrations can also be melodramatically contentious: we see a seemingly disdainful Washington dangling a “peace medal” before a suspicious Seneca Indian leader
As for slave life, it is also difficult to piece together. The video screens that come to life above the fake mantels give the impression of a half-finished 21st-century home. The videos themselves (with scripts by Lorene Cary), in which slaves and servants provide first-person accounts of experiences, at least provide some sense of life. But how do we put these experiences in context? What was Philadelphia’s free black community like? How did white workers and black slaves live together here?
We are told that the President’s House “offers an opportunity to draw lessons from the past.” But what lessons? That Washington was flawed? That slavery was an abomination? Are these revelations? A memorial to the practice of slavery is mounted here, inscribed with the names of African tribes from which slaves derived, but it has no particular relationship to Philadelphia or this site. The need for some such memorial is keen, but here it seems thumped down as an intrusion.
So what is learned? Not what makes this site special, but what makes it ordinary; not the foundations of what led to the overcoming of slavery, but a sense of its enduring presence. Would this display be any different if presidents had not lived here? And would our understanding be any different without it?
The President’s House” opens on Wednesday in Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia; phila.gov/presidentshouse.