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The President's House in Philadelphia

Questions for Discussion for Roundtable

Here are the questions Independence Park posed to the members of the Roundtable. These questions, when first circulated by the Park Service, were seen as so conspicuously biased toward discrediting the slave quarters' existence that several members of the group considered boycotting the session. These questions were not, ultimately, addressed at the session.

Questions for Discussion
  1. The accurate location of the smokehouse: What documentation supports the actual location of the smokehouse? The Burnt House Plan, the only contemporary document to show the property, is undated, but may have been drawn up right after the fire in January 1780. That year predates Washington's residency by more than 10 years. How do we know the extent of modifications that wealthy merchant Robert Morris made to the property during the decade of the 1780s? These wouldn't appear on the plan. Did he remove any of the features that appear on the "Burnt House" plan? We know the Kitchen and wash house likely remained in situ, because Washington made multiple references to them in planning his household living areas, but the smokehouse referenced in Washington's letters is not identified on the "Burnt House" plan. Did Morris, however, add the smokehouse after he took possession? Where might it have logically stood? Would it have stood separate from the other buildings to protect against fire hazards or smoke damage?

  2. Was the proposed construction built? Washington and Lear planned for a servants hall (traditionally for dining) and an enlarged smokehouse to accommodate the servants in the household, but when the family arrived to take occupation of the property, most of these improvements had yet to be started. Do we assume that they were all eventually completed? We need to consider the fact that prices for construction work in Philadelphia soared following the announcement that it would be the nation's capital for ten years. Washington closely watched his expenses. Since they had to make do without the servants' hall and smokehouse enlargements in the beginning, it seems the President may have made some adjustments to his ambitious renovations plans. The 1798 insurance policy strongly suggests the completion of the servants hall, but no record has been found to confirm the enlargement of the smokehouses. In fact, there is no record after the family's arrival in Philadelphia that refers to a smokehouse on the property.

  3. Was the smokehouse a slave quarters? If Washington's plan for the smokehouse enlargement was completed and solid evidence can be shown that it stood to the rear of and adjoining the wash house, who occupied the building for the longest period of time? The smokehouse and its extension was planned to house all the stable workers – at first two or three enslaved men and one free white coachman. Paris a young postillion slave, was sent home to Mount Vernon by the summer of 1791 and Austin died in 1794. Washington replaced them with indentured or free white men. Is it appropriate to mark the location building, then, as "slave quarters?"

  4. Is power of place lost if a "slave quarters" is not marked on the ground? Washington's large household in 1790 included over 24 people, one third of whom were enslaved. These eight lived in the main house, over the kitchen, over the washhouse and wherever space could be found once the family arrived. By 1793-4 the number of enslaved servants had declined to three and in 1796, after Oney successfully escaped, that number dropped to two – Hercules and Molly. Washington hired a few indentured servants to replace some of these people in the work force and they also had restricted freedom. Hercules fled to freedom after Washington completed his presidency. Do we also mark the place where indentured servants lived on the property? Is the power of place better defined around the powerful story of the Philadelphia's free African community and the abolitionists who worked with them, and how they affected Washington's decisions?

  5. Does "slave quarters" apply to the President's House site consistently? President Adams had no slaves and thus marking a slave quarters site would misrepresent the property under his presidency.

  6. What is the best way to offer a balanced interpretation of the Executive branch of government during the Washington and Adams administrations?

  7. How do assumptions regarding the apportionment of sleeping quarters throughout the property accord with what we know of Washington's practices and with common practices for the times?

  8. How do presumptions regarding interior room use accord with what we know regarding G. Washington and practices of the times?

  9. In a discussion of her work in INDE, ethnographer Setha Low concludes that "cultural representation in urban parks is fundamental to their use and maintenance by local groups. Understanding the intimate relationship between ethnic histories, cultural representation, and park use is critical to successful design and planning in any culturally diverse context (see article in handout)." This is the crux of our work on this roundtable. We must portray the past using acceptable scholarly standards and honor the cultural concerns of our community.

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Copyright ©1999- by the Independence Hall Association, a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942. Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.