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Date: July 5, 2007
Byline: J.D. Mullane

George's sordid secret

The nation's first presidential executive mansion was a large, brick house on Market Street near Sixth in Philadelphia. The place held two presidents (Washington and Adams) and, until a few months ago, also held a sordid secret.

President George Washington, who had agreed to the proposition that "all men are created equal," had nine slaves living in what was then called the "President's House."

In fact, when the new pavilion for the Liberty Bell is completed, millions of visitors will walk over the spot that Washington had converted into slave quarters when he took up residence there in 1790.

The startling facts were uncovered through the research of historian Edward Lawler Jr., said Jed Levin, a National Park Service archaeologist who's excavating the site, which is now an open pit.

"A few people are surprised to learn that Washington was a slaveholder at all," Levin said, as he scanned the pit, an unlikely but popular tourist attraction this summer.

"Most people seem to know he had slaves, but it never crossed their minds that while he was president, living in the White House of that time, he would have slaves working for him. Some people are disturbed that we even talk about it. Some people think it tarnishes President Washington. But most of the people who come here to see it are fascinated, enlightened and interested to learn this, however disturbing it may be."

It gets worse, though. George Washington, who could never tell a lie, in fact, lied when it came to his slaves, according to Levin.

The president was concerned that he was in violation of Pennsylvania's abolition law. Passed in 1780 (the first abolition law in the Western hemisphere), it declared that slaves from out of state would be eligible for freedom after six months.

Washington, who brought the slaves from Mount Vernon, Va., attempted to skirt the law by moving the slaves out of Pennsylvania just as the six-month deadline approached.

"In one of his letters to his senior secretary, Tobias Lear, he tells Lear to arrange to rotate slaves and contrive it in such a way — and these are his words — to "deceive both the slaves and the public' for the purpose of evading the abolition law," Levin said.

The president even had his wife, Martha, take a slave across the state line to New Jersey for several hours in an attempt to "reset the clock," Levin said.

Who were the slaves?

Austin, a stable hand, died after falling from a horse in 1794. He had a wife and five children.

Christopher Sheels attempted an escape in 1799, but failed.

Giles, another stable hand, returned with Washington to Mount Vernon. Joseph Richardson was freed after Washington's death in 1799.

Moll was nursemaid to Martha Washington's two grandchildren.

Paris, a stable hand, was returned to Mount Vernon in 1791 for "unsatisfactory behavior" and died in 1794.

Little is known of Richard, son of another Washington slave. Two slaves escaped while Washington was president. Ona Judge, nursemaid to Martha Washington's grandchildren, fled to New Hampshire. Washington sent his son-in-law to get her, but she was tipped off by New Hampshire's governor and slipped away. Washington spent years trying to recapture her but never could. She died in 1848.

Hercules, Washington's personal chef, escaped in 1797 as the presidential family and staff prepared to return to Virginia.

Washington searched for him, but to this day, no one knows what happened to him.

It is assumed Hercules succeeded in his goal of living as a free man.


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