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The President's House in Philadelphia

Frequently Asked Questions

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How long did Washington live in the house?

Except for trips and vacations, Washington lived in the President's House from November 1790 to March 1797 — reportedly, longer than he lived anywhere but Mount Vernon. In November 1793, to escape the Yellow Fever epidemic, Washington moved to Germantown (6 or 7 miles outside the city) for several weeks, and he vacationed there the following summer. Washington tried to spend a couple of months of each year at Mount Vernon, but with his work as President this was not always possible.

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How long did John Adams live in the house?

John Adams moved into the President's House in late March 1797, and spent most of his presidency in Philadelphia. First Lady Abigail Adams was not always in good health, and spent much of this time at their farm in Quincy, MA. The President moved to the District of Columbia and into the White House on Saturday, November 1, 1800, and he lost the presidential election to Thomas Jefferson the following Tuesday.

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How many slaves did Washington have in the President's House?

The Washingtons moved into the house in November 1790 with a household of about 24 — 8 black slaves and about 16 white servants. The blacks worked in the stables and the kitchen, or as personal servants for the family members. A ninth enslaved black later joined household. Biographical sketches of the 9 can be found here.

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Is anything left of the slave quarters?

We don't know, but highly doubt it. The recent archeology did not extend south to the area of the slavequarters. According to correspondence between Washington and his secretary, three of the black men slept in the attic of the main house, and the two black women slept in a divided room over the kitchen with Mrs. Washington's grandchildren. The remaining three black men (at least two of whom worked in the stables) probably slept in the quarters that Washington ordered built between the smokehouse and the stable.

The PH property was subdivided in 1828, and from the description in the new deed it seems likely that the slave quarters were no longer standing. The quarters would have been hastily put up in November 1790, and probably had only shallow foundations and no cellar. In the 1850s, a 6-story masonry warehouse facing Minor Street was built on the site, and it is likely that the excavations for this building would have removed any trace of the slave quarters.

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What do we know about the other servants in the President's House?

Not much besides their names. Washington was a hard taskmaster, and most of what he writes about his servants are complaints. There was a lot of turnover among the household staff. Perhaps in an effort to establish more stability, Washington began hiring indentured servants newly arrived from Germany with 3-year and 5-year contracts. Most of what is known of the servants comes from entries in the household ledgerbooks. They were not well paid, and were paid once every three months, but they received free room and board. They slept 2 or 3 to a room, mostly in the attic of the main house. There was prestige in working for the President, but some of the servants were lured away by higher wages.

Washington's office staff, all men, consisted of his secretary and four clerks who all lived on the third floor of the main house. These were mostly relatives of the president, or the sons of his friends. Tobias Lear, the president's secretary from 1789 to 1793, became almost an adopted son, and was at Washington's bedside in 1799 at his death.

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Why did the government move to Philadelphia from New York?

It was assumed that whatever area became the capital of the U.S. would grow into a major city (like the capitals of Europe). Dozens of American towns were proposed to Congress as the national capital in the winter and spring of 1790. Except for emergercies, Congress had met in Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War, and the general assumption was that it would become the national capital. That changed in 1783, when mutineering Pennsylvania soldiers surrounded Independence Hall demanding their pay, and Congress's demand that the PA governor remove the soldiers by force was ignored. Congress used this pretext to move to Princeton, NJ, but it also made it clear that wherever the new capital was, Congress had to have control over it.

Congress moved from city to city, and was meeting in New York City in December 1788, when the new government under the terms of the U.S. Constitution was established. Washington was sworn in as the first President in April 1789, again in NYC.

Philadelphia was anxious to get the national capital back, but the city was a center of abolitionism, and most of the American population either supported slavery, or were willing to tolerate it. Slave-holders wanted the capital in an area that was not hostile to slavery, and Virginia, the largest state in area (it included West Virginia) was home to Washington, Jefferson, and many other early leaders.

A compromise was reached, by which Philadelphia would become the temporary capital for 10 years, while the permanent capital was under construction. This permanent capital, the District of Columbia, originally straddled the Potomac River, with some of it on land ceded by Maryland, and some on land ceded by Virginia.

The compromise was fashioned privately by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton — Jefferson got the capital in his home state (where slavery was protected), and Hamilton got Jefferson's (and the Virginia delegation's) support in passing his national economic plan. Robert Morris entered the negotiations and convinced them to make Philadelphia the temporary capital. NYC tried to stop the move, but the backroom deal went through.

The Residence Act passed on July 16, 1790, and Congress met in NYC for the last time in August.

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If slavery was abolished in Pennsylvania in 1780, how was Washington able to have slaves in the President's House?

The 1780 law was a gradual emancipation, rather than an outright abolition of slavery. Any slave born in Pennsylvania before its enactment and registered with the state remained enslaved for the rest of his/her life, any child born of a registered slave mother after its enactment had the legal status of an indentured servant until age 28, and then was free. The law applied only to Pennsylvania residents and to the residents of other states living in Pennsylvania for longer than 6 months.

Domestic slaves owned by members of Congress were specifically exempted from the 1780 law. Congress was the Federal government under the Articles of Confederation, and met in Philadelphia until 1783. The Constitution, drafted in 1787, created a new Federal government of three branches - the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial. In April 1789, Washington was inaugurated in New York City as the first President under the ratified Constitution. The national capital moved to Philadelphia the following year, but the exemption to the Pennsylvania law remained the same. Attorney General Edmund Randolph (a member of the Executive branch) was unpleasantly surprised in April 1791 when the slaves he had brought with him to Philadelphia the previous fall demanded their freedom. Under the 1780 law, he had no choice but to free them. Randolph warned Washington to get his slaves out of Pennsylvania before they too could establish a 6-month residency.

Washington, like other slave-owners, took advantage of a legal loophole and rotated his slaves out of the state. An amendment to the 1780 law was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature in 1794 to expand the exemption to domestic slaves owned by all officers of the Federal government. (Its introduction may have been related to Philadelphia's efforts to retain the national capital, especially after the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.) The amendment was defeated.

To read the text of the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, click here.

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Why was the President's House torn down?

In the early 19th century, Market Street became the busiest commercial street in Philadelphia. The President's House had been converted into a hotel by November 1800, but the business moved out by 1804. With very large rooms and high ceilings, the building proved inefficient for a hotel. Instead, the first floor of the main house was broken up into stores, and the upper floors became a boardinghouse.

By the 1830s, the value of the land was so high that it made commercial sense to tear down the house and build stores in its place. There was no public outcry to preserve what had been the "White House" from 1790 to 1800. Nathaniel Burt bought the property in April 1832, tore down the main house, and opened his new stores by September.

The demolition of the surviving walls of the house in the 20th century was unintentional and unnecessary. Had the WPA done its job when it studied the property in the 1930s, it is likely that these walls would not have been torn down in the 1950s.

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Why was the Liberty Bell moved to the President's House site?

After its removal from the tower, the Liberty Bell was put on public display in Independence Hall from 1852 to 1975. Because of the large crowds anticipated for the Bicentennial, Independence National Historical Park built a modern glass and steel building to house the bell about 500 feet north of its old home. This building has been criticized as being bland, but it fulfilled its function well by not competing for attention with the bell. With the growth in tourism, the building was outgrown, but there also is a desire at INHP to change how a visitor experiences the Liberty Bell.

The new Liberty Bell Center, triple the size of the old, allows much more space to educate visitors about the bell's history and significance. A 200-foot-long exhibition hall houses interactive displays. The bell itself is separate; housed in a quiet, contemplative space at the south end of the building. The bell chamber is angled to face the tower of Independence Hall, in a view that screens out the 20th century buildings which surround it.

The LBC was designed so it would not disturb most of the President's House site. The main entrance is set back more than 160 feet from Market Street. It is in the paving of this entrance plaza that we urge that INHP mark the footprint of the President's House.

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Why was Philadelphia the national capital for ten years?

During the Revolutionary War it seemed natural that Philadelphia would become the capital of the new nation. It was America's largest and richest city, it was where the first and second Continental Congresses had met, and its Quaker tradition of tolerance meant that all were welcome.

In June 1783, Congress (under the Articles of Confederation) was in session in Independence Hall when several hundred mutinous Pennsylvania militiamen surrounded the building, demanding the back pay they were owed. Congress ordered Pennsylvania's governor to remove the protesting soldiers, but he refused, claiming that his troops would not fire on their fellow soldiers. An angry and indignant Congress adjourned to Princeton, NJ.

The protest had been more annoying than threatening, but it made the point that Congress needed to be able to protect itself, and should not have to rely on the government of a host city or state. The idea took hold of placing the national capital in a district separate from any state, to be controlled by the Federal government.

Members of Congress returned to Philadelphia in 1787 for the Constitutional Convention, but two years later New York City became the first national capital under the ratified Constitution. Philadelphians were anxious to get the capital back, and, through a complex deal negotiated by Robert Morris in 1790, Congress agreed to name Philadelphia the temporary capital for a ten-year period while the permanent capital was under construction in the District of Columbia.

Almost as soon as the Federal government arrived in Philadelphia, there were efforts to persuade Congress to stay. New buildings were begun such as the mammoth presidential mansion on 9th Street (where no president ever lived) and the expansion of Congress Hall. Washington worked behind the scenes to make sure that the permanent capital would be built between Virginia and Maryland.

The factor which probably most doomed Philadelphians' hopes of keeping the capital was the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793. Nearly 10% of the population died, and it was suspected that there was something unhealthy about the city's water or air. The State government left Philadelphia for good in 1799, and the Federal government left in 1800.

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Why hasn't the President's House been rebuilt?

Until recently, not enough was known about the building to even consider rebuilding it and we still don't know enough of the details to faithfully reproduce the house. A team under the WPA studied the house in the 1930s, but its research and the supposed scale model that was built were so inept as to be worthless. The most disappointing part of the WPA project is that had the researchers done their jobs and gotten things right, it's likely that the main house would have been rebuilt between two of its original walls and upon most of its original foundations. Instead, in the 1950s, the surviving walls were demolished and the foundations truncated to 4 feet below street level.

The idea of recreating historical buildings is out of fashion. Recent thinking is that recreating a building can distort history as much as doing nothing can doom it to obscurity.

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Why did General Howe choose this house to live in during the British occupation of Philadelphia?

Probably because it was then the largest house in Philadelphia, and perhaps the grandest. After the Battle of Germantown in October 1777, Howe consolidated his forces on the peninsula between the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers (now Center City and South Philadelphia). After a short stay in the John Cadwalader House at 2nd & Union Streets (now the site of the Society Hill Towers apartments), Howe moved into Richard Penn's mansion (the PH). The house served as Howe's residence and the headquarters of the British Army until the following May.

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How do you know Benedict Arnold started his treason while living here?

Arnold lived in the house for about a year beginning in June 1778. He married Philadelphia belle Peggy Shippen the following April, and the two lived here for a few months. It has been established that Shippen was involved in Arnold's treason, and may have encouraged him to betray his country. Arnold hired Joseph Stansbury to redecorate the dining room of the house. According to Stansbury's testimony after the Revolutionary War, he was the courier who carried the messages between Arnold in Philadelphia and Major Andre in New York City.

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Who visited the President's House?

There was a regular schedule of weekly entertaining. Washington and Adams held "levees" on Tuesday afternoons. These formal audiences with the President were open to members of Congress and foreign dignitaries, and their guests. State dinners were held on Thursday afternoons, and were by invitation only. Mrs. Washington held "drawingrooms" on Friday evenings, which were less formal and open to anyone wearing proper dress. Descriptions of the food served can be found in the First-Person Accounts section.

There were open houses on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July which were open to all. One Fourth of July, Abigail Adams estimated that a thousand people would attend the open house. Long tables were set up in the yard behind the house, and wine, punch and cake were served. The Third Infantry regiment would stand guard at the front door, and, to signal the end of the reception, it would perform a ceremonial march through the house and into the yard. After drinking several toasts, the veterans would reverse-march through the house and out onto Market Street. John Adams established the U.S. Marine Band in 1798, and it is likely that the band played at the house.

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Are any of Washington's slaves buried on the property?

No. This is an urban legend.

From 1750 to 1868, the Second Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia had its cemetery on what is now the third block of Independence Mall. After the Civil War the cemetery was sold, and, according to church records, the remains of 1500 were removed for reburial in a new cemetery. Commercial buildings were built on the site of the old cemetery.

During the recent archeological work prior to the construction of the National Constitution Center, human remains were found. It appears that the church missed dozens of coffins when it moved the cemetery 140 years ago. The recovered remains were reburied at Woodlands Cemetery in a ceremony conducted by the First Presbyterian Church (the Second is now defunct). African-Americans were among those buried in the Second Presbyterian Church cemetery, but none of the recovered remains were specifically identified as being of blacks or whites.

The President's House stood on what is now the first block of Independence Mall, about 1000 feet from the cemetery. The only one of the nine slaves who worked in the PH who did not return to Mount Vernon or escape was Austin. He died on December 20, 1794, in Harford, MD. The presumption is that Austin would have been buried at Mount Vernon.

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Where did the Vice President live?

When he arrived in Philadelphia, VP John Adams lived at Bush Hill, an estate outside the city. (The house stood on the hill behind what is now the main branch Free Library of Philadelphia.) This was more than a mile from the settled areas of the city, and Abigail Adams complained of the isolation and the mud. Bush Hill was commandeered during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793 to serve as a quarantine hospital for fever victims. VP Adams moved to the Indian Queen Hotel on 4th Street, south of Market Street, east side; and lived there until he succeeded Washington as President. Thomas Jefferson also lodged at the Indian Queen while he was Adams's VP.

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Where were the offices for the Executive Branch?

Most of the work of the Executive Branch was carried out in a single room on the third floor of the PH by Washington's secretary and 4 clerks. (Now, the Executive Branch occupies the West Wing of the White House and the entire Executive Office Building.) Washington complained that those doing business with the United States had to climb 2 pairs of flights of stairs and to get to the public office. The President's private office, the equivalent of the Oval Office, was a second-floor bathingroom off the kitchen ell from which the bathtubs had been removed. This probably was also where the President met with his Cabinet.

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Did the Washingtons own any pets?

Yes. There is an entry in the household ledgerbooks on December 24, 1794 for the purchase of a parrot and cage. The date suggests that this was a Christmas gift, perhaps from the President to his wife.

Mrs. Washington's two youngest grandchildren, Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis were raised by the President and his wife. There is an entry on June 1795, for the purchase of "a collar for Nelly Custis dog." Nelly then would have been 16; her dog was named "Frisky."

Frisky and the parrot were brought to Mount Vernon after Washington's retirement.

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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.