The original article (Index, Parts I and II above) appeared in the January 2002 issue of The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. The Revisited article below was published in the October 2005 issue.
Copyright ©2005 Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Edward Lawler, Jr. (Annotated and updated, May 2006.) Courtesy of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The President's House Revisited
By Edward Lawler, Jr.
The Independence Hall Association (IHA) had been established in 1942 to manage the national park's creation. Its founder and president was the distinguished Philadelphia judge Edwin O. Lewis who shared the grandiose vision of architect (and IHA vice president) Roy Larson to turn the three blocks north of Independence Hall — then covered with hundreds of nineteenth-century industrial buildings — into a vast landscaped mall. The federal government was cool to the idea, seeing the mall as more of a Philadelphia urban renewal project than an integral part of the proposed national park and, being wartime, took little action. In 1945, Lewis turned to the Pennsylvania legislature, successfully proposing the mall as a state park and "a State Memorial to our war heroes."1
Two years later Peterson and NPS historian Roy E. Appelman were assigned to advise the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission — a seven-member panel appointed by President Truman — on the boundaries for the proposed park and the historic buildings that should be included within it. The two NPS men urged that the block directly north of Independence Hall (on which the President's House had stood) should be part of the national park. But the commission, chaired by Judge Lewis, rejected their recommendation, banking that the state legislature would eventually fund the full three-block mall:
The recommendation of the National Park Service representatives, Mr. Peterson and Mr. Appelman, to acquire as part of the Federal project, the square directly north of Independence Square, to be used as a center of park activities, was voted down as Chairman Lewis considered it undesirable to interfere with the State Mall plans as now constituted.2
Peterson lost this battle with Judge Lewis — as he would later lose others over preserving nineteenth- century buildings within the park — but the Shrine Commission's final report to Congress (December 1947), of which Peterson was the uncredited primary author, made a fourteen-page argument for the national significance of the President's House site. The report concluded:
The site of the Presidential Mansion is hardly surpassed in importance by any other historical site in America. The eminent personages who lived here and the decisions affecting the future of the nation that were made here have caused a growing interest in the Presidential Mansion and the ground upon which it once stood. It is a distinguished historical site.3
If only Peterson had been listened to. Unbeknownst to him, the IHA, the Shrines Commission or seemingly anyone else at the time, major sections of the house's walls had survived (fig. 2). Had the site been included within the national park's original borders (INHP didn't assume control of Independence Mall from the state until 1974) the house might have been competently researched, the evidence for this uncovered, and its original walls preserved. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) had studied the house a decade earlier (and thoroughly botched the job) but, although its researchers missed the still- standing walls, they did recognize that most of the house's foundations had survived. Peterson included this information in the report to Congress, but it seems to have been ignored. On federal land the remnants of the house probably would have been measured and recorded, an archaeological study performed, and anything original preserved. Being on state land, none of this was required or done. Instead, in what sounds like a sick joke, the surviving walls of Washington's "White House" were demolished and a public toilet was erected on its site.
Peterson settled in Philadelphia and became the first resident architect at INHP, serving in that position until his move into private practice in 1962. But he always felt that the President's House site had gotten extremely short shrift. Standing in front of Independence Hall, one could see the buildings that had housed the federal government during Philadelphia's ten-year tenure as the temporary national capital: Congress Hall to the west — the seat of the legislative branch — where the U.S. Senate met on the second floor and the U.S. House of Representatives on the first; Old City Hall to the east — the seat of the judicial branch — where the U.S. Supreme Court met; but what about the third branch of government? A block to the north was the site of the President's House — the seat of the executive branch — where the first two Presidents of the United States lived and worked from 1790 to 1800, but the only indication of this was a plaque outside the public toilet.
When I presented my research on the house to the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians in December 2000, Peterson, then ninety-four, attended the lecture and invited me to show him more. He was delighted with the degree to which the building could be recaptured based on documentary evidence, and became a champion of my work. Peterson came to suspect that his hero, Robert Smith — designer of the steeple of Christ Church (1753-54), Nassau Hall at Princeton (1754-56), Carpenters' Hall (1768), and the interiors of the Powel House (1768) — was the house's likely designer and/or builder.4
Peterson saw the President's House as the last missing piece of his beloved Independence Park. After 150 years of confusion, and his own efforts to call attention to the site having been thwarted a half- century earlier, the puzzle of the house had been solved.
How things have changed in three years. In 2002 a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer couldn't persuade her editor to approve a feature story on the President's House for President's Day weekend; now hundreds of articles related to the house have been published, including dozens in The Inquirer. In 2002 Independence Park planned to interpret the entire history of the site with a single sign; now a $4.5 million, forty-minute "interpretive experience" is being proposed and Philadelphia Mayor John Street and City Council have pledged $1.5 million toward making it happen. In 2002 only a small number of historians were aware that enslaved Africans had toiled in Washington's presidential household; now we know that there were not eight but nine enslaved Africans, we know their names and the jobs they performed, where they likely slept and ate, that two of them successfully escaped to freedom from the house, and that two others who had tasted freedom in Philadelphia later attempted to escape from Mount Vernon, but were unsuccessful. Most significantly, the new Liberty Bell Center (LBC), a building on which ground was about to be broken when the January 2002 article appeared in this magazine, subsequently was completed and now has been open to the public for two years. The public toilet built within the footprint of the main house in 1954 was demolished on May 27, 2003 (fig. 3). The site was cleared for the entrance plaza to the LBC, which opened on October 9, 2003. Just outside the LBC's main entrance is the site of the smokehouse, the building in which Washington directed that his stableworkers — most of whom were enslaved Africans — be quartered.
The January 2002 article has stood up well to three years of scrutiny. The most significant factual error was my misstatement that Washington lodged with the Morrises in September 1790. A contemporary newspaper records the President staying at the City Tavern.5 It is also now clear that Washington's designation of a first-floor room "for the upper Servants," was intended as a workroom, not a lodging room.6 To avoid overwhelming the reader, I underplayed the volume of published misinformation about the physical building — I analyzed five theories for the house's location/size/façade composition, and disproved four of these. In actuality, nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sources claim at least nine additional locations for the house (all of them erroneous) including the Delaware riverfront, Second Street, Third Street, Fourth Street, Eighth Street, Ninth Street, and Chestnut Street.7
New information has come to light on several issues regarding the President's House. The January 2002 article allowed that the undated ground plan of the property entitled "Richd Penn's Burnt House Lot — Philadelphia" could have been drawn as early as 1780.8 A nearly identical version of this document descended through the Burt family, a facsimile of which was published by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with Nathaniel Burt's 1875 lecture on the house.9 The Burt ground plan facsimile is dated "August 25, 1785" (fig. 4).
Fig. 4. Burt Ground Plan Facsimile, 1875?. Nathaniel Burt [II], Address of Nathaniel Burt, February 12, 1875: On the Washington Mansion in Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1875), 0pp. 13. A second version of the Burnt House Plan (ca. 1785) descended in the family of Nathaneil Burt, who had purchased the property in 1832. This facsimile was published with his son's lecture in 1875. The only significant difference between the two plans is the line along the Wood Yard between the back of the kitchen ell and the stable complex is solid in the Burnt House Plan and dotted in this version. The facsimile is dated August 25, 1785.
The William L. Breton watercolor of the President's House that served as the basis for the illustration in the first edition of John Fanning Watson's Annals of Philadelphia (1830) is now on display at the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia. According to the painting's provenance, wood salvaged from the house's front door was used to construct its frame.
Susan Gray Detweiler has discovered a newspaper advertisement confirming that the March 10, 1797, public auction of Washington's household furnishings did take place at the President's House:
Sales of Elegant Furniture,
On Friday Next the 10th instant, at 1 o'clock,
will be sold by public Auction, at the House of
the late President of the United States, in Mar-
A QUANTITY of Valuable Household F U R—
N I T U R E, belonging to General Wash-
ington, among which are, a number of Elegant
Chairs with Sattin Bottoms, sattin Window Cur-
tains, a Beautiful Cut Glass Lustre, and a very com-
plete Mahogany Writing Desk, also, a Coach and
Footman & Co. auctioneers.10
Much of the surviving furniture from the Philadelphia house, including this mahogany writing desk (fig. 5), was purchased at the auction. The remaining "Government" furniture seems to have been transferred to the White House in 1800, and probably was burned by the British in 1814.
Master Gunnery Sergeant D. Michael Ressler, chief librarian of the United States Marine Band, is the author of its bicentennial history. The U.S. Marine Corps was established by an Act of Congress signed into law by John Adams on July 11, 1798. (This would have taken place in the President's private office, formerly, the second-floor bathingroom.) The act authorized the creation of a military band, and the Marine Band was performing in Philadelphia that same year. Although there are references to bands having played at the President's House on special occasions, none is identified by name. The Marine Band played at the Fourth of July celebration in Philadelphia in 1800, but President Adams was on vacation in Massachusetts and the festivities were held at the City Tavern rather than at the house. It is likely that members of the Marine Band performed at the President's House for the New Year's Day receptions in 1799 and 1800. Their first performance at the White House was two months after Adams took up residency there — the New Year's Day reception in 1801.11
The most significant new information regarding the physical building comes from Elizabeth M. Nuxoll, former editor of The Papers of Robert Morris, who has discovered two letters related to the house. The first confirms conjectures made in the January 2002 article that the construction of the icehouse and bathhouse were part of Robert Morris's 1781-82 rebuilding:
Mr Morris has moved his family to his house in Market Street, a very elegant one it is; & will be furnished superb for an American house ... Mr Morris has run up a building for cold & warm bath — there is no conveniance indeed that [he h]as not thought of, his ice house in the yard is a very great luxury as well as conveniance.12
The second describes the construction of a heretofore undocumented room:
You have no idea, what a charming little room they are making in Market Street, [T]here is a small chimney in it, but it is more calculated for summer, [T]he side next the garden is thrown out in a Bow, with 3 windows, it over looks the garden, & street, [T]here is one window, opposite that; looks in the yard [O]n the other side the chimney, is the door, going down with steps, to the nursery, [A]lmost opposite, is the window of the chamber, that is to be converted into a door; [I]t will not be finished for 2 or 3 weeks, [I]t looks remarkably well finished and ornaments on the outside ...13
The exact location of the President's private office — formerly, the second-floor bathingroom — has been a puzzle for more than a century. The second of these letters, from Barbara Vaughn, provides the last clue needed to solve it definitively. From Abigail Adams's description we know that the private office had three south-facing windows and an east-facing one:
[T]he Presidents Room ... in which I now write has three larg[e] windows to the South. The sun visits it with his earliest beams at the East window, and Cheers it the whole day in winter.14
The only place within the back-buildings shown on the 1785 ground-plan which could fit this evidence — i.e., second-floor location; possessing both eastern and southern exposures — is the room over the washhouse. Architect David H. Morgan of the WPA and, later, local historian Harold Donaldson Eberlein — each making the (erroneous) assumption that the bathhouse and the washhouse had been one and the same building — both located the private office here.15 Historian Frank W. Hutchins, after a close examination of the correspondence between Washington and his chief secretary, Tobias Lear, recognized (correctly) that the bathhouse and the washhouse must have been separate buildings, and located the private office (incorrectly) in the only other place which seemed to fit the evidence — on the second floor of the main house at its southeast corner.16
All of these men possessed copies of Burt's 1875 lecture, but none seems to have grasped the significance of a document quoted in it, one which reportedly accompanied the deed from Robert Morris's March 18, 1795 sale of the house. The document described the property in two parcels: (1)"the house and lot in which the President of the United States now resides, with all the buildings thereon, that is, the lot on which the house stands" and, (2)"the twenty-four feet lot adjoining to the eastward, on which the bath house and other buildings are erected."17 The 1796 John Hills map of Philadelphia lends further credence for this adjoining lot — the Wood Yard — having been the bathhouse's location, since it shows an addition attached to the east wall of the piazza and/or kitchen.18 Relying on Burt's quotation from the 1795 document, the Hills map, and clues contained in Washington's and Adams's correspondence, I located the bathhouse in the Wood Yard in the conjectural floor plans that accompanied the January 2002 article. Vaughn's letter confirms that this was correct.
But, how does it do so? At first glance, the details contained in the letter seem puzzling. Where could this summer room have been located? Vaughn's description of a three-window bow facing the garden and another window, opposite, facing the yard means the room must have had views both east and west. This eliminates the possibility that it had been attached to the east wall of the kitchen or main house, since either building would have blocked the view west. The letter mentions steps going down to the nursery, so the summer room cannot have been on the ground floor. It is arguable that the summer room might have been the bathhouse's second floor, but its east-west views would have been possible only if the bathhouse had been attached to the piazza and the second floors of both buildings combined into a single room. Lear's letters imply that the back stairs (at least the run from the first story to the second) had been located within the piazza.19 Vaughn's steps going down to the nursery might be a confirmation of this, although it seems curious for the summer room to have been converted into a bathingroom — a place where one might have expected privacy — while also serving as a stair hall for the back stairs and the passage from the main house to the bedrooms over the kitchen. This conjecture also puts the nursery either downstairs in the kitchen or in the first-story room of the bathhouse.
Comparing Abigail Adams's description of the private office — three windows facing south, one window facing east, no mention of a bow — with Vaughn's description of the summer room — three windows facing east in a bow, one window facing west — all but eliminates the possibility that the summer room had been the bathhouse's second floor. If the room was not located on the first or second floors, it must have been on the third.
The only solution which fits all the evidence is that the summer room was a third-story structure, probably made of wood, built atop both the bathhouse and the piazza (fig. 6).20 Vaughn's window "that is to be converted into a door" would have been the eastern-most third-floor window on the back (south façade) of the main house. Her description of this window as "almost opposite" the door to the stairs would argue that the back stairs rose along the piazza's west wall before turning and ascending to the summer room. (If the back stairs had risen along the piazza's east wall, as conjectured in the January 2002 article, the door to them would have been directly opposite this window.) Thus, the room at the bottom of the stairs — the nursery — would have been the second-floor front room over the kitchen. This makes sense, since the adjacent rear room is presumed to have been the Morrises' own bedroom — and likely later served as the President's bedroom for the Washingtons and the Adamses.
This conversion of an existing window into a doorway to the summer room is the "clincher" for pinpointing the location of the bathhouse, and, with it, that of the private office. Without the conversion, one could argue that the bathhouse could have been located almost anywhere along the east wall of the kitchen and the summer room built atop it and/or the second floor of the kitchen ell. The window-cum- doorway anchors the summer room to the main house's third story, and that requires the bathhouse (beneath two-thirds of the summer room) to have lined up with the east wall of the piazza (beneath the remaining third). The location of the bathhouse in the January 2002 article was, to some very minor extent, conjectural. With the confirming evidence from Vaughn's letter, it can now be said that the bathhouse — the second floor of which served as the President's private office and likely Cabinet room — could have been located nowhere else.
The summer room provides a probable answer to the question of where guests were housed. Mrs. Washington's granddaughter, Martha, and her husband, Thomas Peter, honeymooned at the house in 1795; the following year the teen-aged George Washington Lafayette (son of the Marquis) and his tutor, Fresnel, were guests for an extended stay. The summer room also may have been where Washington himself lodged from May to September 1787, as Robert Morris's houseguest during the Constitutional Convention.
(The 1784 summer room seems to have been the very first "bowed" room in Philadelphia, and the possibility that Washington slept there and knew it well is intriguing. Six years later, as President, he added the two- story bow to the south side of the main house, and this is believed to have been the inspiration for other bows and oval rooms, including those of The White House.)21
The third floor of the main house contained four rooms, a lateral hallway, front and back stairs to the second floor, and stairs to the fourth. The northwest room would have had the same dimensions as the Yellow Drawing Room directly below it, about 24 x 21 feet, and almost certainly became the Presidential Business Office — the equivalent of today's West Wing. Washington saw its third-floor location as inconvenient:
[M]y office [in New York] was in a front Room below, where persons on business immediately entered; where as in the present case they will have to ascend two pair of Stairs, and to pass by the public Rooms as well as private chambers, to get to it.22
The President's chief secretary, Tobias Lear, and a couple of junior secretaries (usually the sons of Washington's friends or relatives) worked in this single room, and lived in the adjoining bedrooms. Lear expressed frustration that "persons who have business to transact may appear at any time."23 Complaints by visitors — especially those seeking appointment to federal offices — about the difficulty of obtaining access to the President would argue that Washington did not frequent the third floor during business hours.
The likely expansion of the piazza westward (rather than eastward, as conjectured in the January 2002 article), requires a tweaking of the conjectural floor plans. In these, I have widened the piazza by three feet.24 The revised plan for the first floor is shown (fig. 7).
Because Vaughn's letter describes the summer room's chimney as having been by the door to the stairs (and presuming that those of all three stories would have been gathered into a single stack), I have moved the chimneys of the first-floor bathingroom and the second-floor private office (the President's Room) from the north wall to the southwest corner. This allows me to move the conjectured bulkhead leading to the bathhouse's cellar — presumed to have been the Morrises' wine cellar25 — to the center of the north wall. I have added a narrow alleyway through the bathhouse, along with a door from the bathingroom to the privy yard.26 The wooden cisterns mentioned in Burt's 1875 lecture are presumed to have stood atop a shed built off the kitchen — what Washington called the "small room adjoining the Kitchen (by the Pump)." This pump was located outside, near the northwest corner of the kitchen. On the advice of NPS archaeologist Jed Levin, I have moved the shed to the kitchen's west wall (the default position in the 2002 article).27 Within the stable section of the coach house and the cowhouse, I have turned the horse stalls ninety degrees. This extends the fire protection of the brick stable to them. After re-reading first-person descriptions of the main house and finding they could be interpreted in more than one way, I have turned the short run of stairs from the first-floor landing to the second floor ninety degrees. For aesthetic reasons one step has been added to the main staircase, making twenty-six steps, each 6-1/2 inches tall (an alternate solution in the 2002 article).28
Washington and Lear went back and forth in their correspondence over whether lodging rooms for (white) married servants should be built at the south end of the proposed Servants' Hall. Lear claimed the rooms were unnecessary, arguing that the two husbands could be housed with the other men and the two wives with the other women. But Washington was dubious, questioning whether separating the couples might not "be a foundation for the loss of their husbands [from the household]?"29 Lear proposed building a new Steward's Room at the north end of the Servants' Hall. His language makes it clear that these rooms were to be carved out of the interior of the hall once it was built rather than appended to its exterior:
[W]hen the Servant's hall is built, instead of an additional room or two for the accommodation of such Servants as may have wives[, I propose] to have the Steward's room in the end of the building adjoining the house.30
Although the 1798 insurance policy seems to confirm that the Servants' Hall was constructed,31 there is no corroborating evidence that the lodging rooms or the Steward's Room were built within it. Washington's concern that the couples might leave if separated seems to imply that they had had their own rooms in the New York presidential household. James and Fanny Hurley (newlyweds in 1790) and Fidus and Jane Imhoff continued to work in the Philadelphia presidential household for years, the wives intermittently or part-time. This would seem to argue that Washington made some accommodation for the couples' privacy.
The revised conjectural floor plan shows two small lodging rooms at the Servants' Hall's south end and a new Steward's Room at its north end. The discovery of the third-floor summer room also necessitates a revision of the conjectural elevation (fig. 8). The only other significant revisions in this are the addition of an alleyway through the east end of the bathhouse (left), and an change in the roof of the icehouse (far right), a building mostly obscured by the main house. A fanlight, perhaps the one mentioned by Struthers Burt in 1945, has been added to the frontispiece.32
[NOTE: In the 2002 article I reasoned that a fanlight would have been an expensive item, and that its not appearing in the April 1773 insurance survey would argue against its presence in the President's House. Gunning Bedford made the survey. I based the square lights over the front door in my elevation on those of the Willing House, a contemporaneous 4-bay city house.
Among the bills for John Dickinson's new house on Chestnut Street is: "10 lights of Mahogany fan sash over the front door @ 5/ p. light ... L 2/10/", presumably a Gothic fanlight (by the number of lights). When it was completed in September 1774, Bedford surveyed Dickinson's house, but did not mention this fanlight in his insurance survey.
The Burt family lore states that a fanlight from the President's House was installed in their house at 12th & Walnut in the 1830s and survived there until about 1935 (published by Struthers Burt in 1945). With the strongest argument against a fanlight gone, I have added one to the frontispiece. The dentilled pediment comes from Watson's 1823 sketch (the earliest known view of the PH). Note that the detailing of the revised frontispiece echoes that of the dormers, which are well-documented by the 1832 Mason watercolor.]
Interest in the enslaved Africans has been the engine driving the growing public awareness of the President's House. The January 2002 article focused on the physical building and the chain of misinformation which culminated in its surviving walls being demolished in the 1950s. I had done little original research on the enslaved Africans and wound up repeating errors found in the standard sources. I was thunderstruck upon learning that one of them, Austin, had died in 1794. Because there was no mention of his death in Washington's published correspondence and no apparent evidence to the contrary, I had presumed that he had returned to Mount Vernon at the end of Washington's presidency. Mary V. Thompson, research specialist in the Mount Vernon Collections Department, told me about Austin's death, and freely shared her massive research on Washington's enslaved Africans. The biographical sketches below are based as much on her work as my own.
First, an explanation of the legal status of most of the enslaved Africans in the presidential household: Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis (1711-57), died intestate (without a will). Under Virginia law his estate was held in trust for his minor children, but his widow was granted a dower interest — the lifetime use of one third of its assets. Among these were 285 enslaved Africans, valued at £9,014.33 Martha Custis received the lifetime use of one third of these enslaved Africans, plus that of their increase (future children and grandchildren), all to be returned to the estate on her demise. Because of their legal status, they were referred to as "dower" slaves.
The widow Custis married George Washington in January 1759, and he was named legal guardian of her two young children and administrator of the Custis estate. The dowers were moved to Mount Vernon and its surrounding farms where more than a dozen intermarried with Washington's enslaved Africans, producing offspring.34 Under Virginia's slave codes, slave marriages were not recognized, the status of a child was the same as that of the enslaved mother, and the father bore no legal relation to his child.35 Legal status had little effect on the day-to-day lives of the enslaved Africans at Mount Vernon, at least until the deaths of George and Martha Washington. By the provisions of his will, his 124 enslaved Africans were freed; on her demise, the dowers (which over forty-three years had increased to 153 enslaved Africans) reverted to the Custis estate and were distributed among her four grandchildren.36
Pennsylvania had been the first state to take action to abolish slavery, but the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780 was generally a weak law.37 It permitted citizens of other states to reside in Pennsylvania with their personal slaves for six months, but it also empowered those enslaved to free themselves if they were held in the state beyond that period. Slaveholders responded by transporting their human property out of state just before the six-month deadline. Removing the enslaved Africans from Pennsylvania — even for as little as one day — was enough to interrupt the continuous residency required for them to qualify for manumission. Subverting the state law would have been especially easy in Philadelphia, where New Jersey was a one-mile boat ride away.
Congress under the Articles of Confederation was meeting in Philadelphia in 1780 when Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Law went into effect. The federal government then had only one branch — the legislative — and members of Congress and their personal slaves were specifically exempted from the state law. Ten years later when the national capital returned to Philadelphia after seven years elsewhere, the federal government under the Constitution had three branches. In February 1791, a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania Assembly exempting all officers of the federal government from the Gradual Abolition Law. This would have provided relief to the President, the members of his Cabinet, the Vice President (although John Adams never owned a slave), and the justices of the Supreme Court — albeit not to their enslaved Africans — but the bill was suppressed after vigorous opposition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.38 This attempt by the Assembly to expand the exemption to the slaveholding officers of the executive and judicial branches may have been related to a larger effort to persuade Congress to abandon the planned move to the District of Columbia — scheduled for December 1, 1800 — and name Philadelphia the permanent capital of the United States.39
Following the bill's defeat, Washington conferred with his attorney general, fellow Virginian (and slaveholder) Edmund Randolph.40 Rather than risk losing the enslaved Africans the President had brought to Philadelphia in a legal challenge, Randolph advised him to rotate them out of the state. Washington saw himself as having good reason to skirt the Pennsylvania law: six of the initial eight enslaved Africans in the presidential household were dowers, owned by the Custis estate. Were they to obtain their freedom through his negligence — i.e., allowing them to remain in Pennsylvania beyond the six- month deadline — he might be required to reimburse the estate for their value:
As all except Hercules and Paris are dower negroes, it behoves me to prevent the emancipation of them, otherwise I shall not only loose the use of them, but may have them to pay for.41
In addition, as administrator of the Custis estate, he had a fiduciary duty to protect its financial interests. To prevent the enslaved Africans who worked in the President's House from obtaining their freedom under the Pennsylvania law, Washington rotated them out of state until the end of his presidency.
Many of the best and worst of Washington's actions regarding slavery took place while he was President. He resolved to free all the enslaved Africans that he owned,42 yet he punished one that he deemed incorrigible, Waggoner Jack, by shipping him to the West Indies (a possible death sentence).43 He attempted to sell his western lands and rent out the farms surrounding the mansion at Mount Vernon as part of a selfless effort to purchase the dowers from the Custis estate and free them,44 yet he pursued one dower, Oney Judge, for years following her escape (see below). Perhaps most momentously, he signed the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act into law.45
Article IV, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution guaranteed the right of a slaveholder to recover a runaway slave:
No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party of whom such Service or Labour may be due.
The 1793 Fugitive Slave Law established the legal mechanism for accomplishing this, made it a federal crime to assist an escaping slave or interfere with his recapture, and set severe fines for doing so. This violated the concept of states' rights — the federal government mandating that "free" states defer to the property law of "slave" states — but political pressure trumped principle, perhaps because slaveholders wielded enormous power in Congress. The federal law had a chilling effect on the lives of the one fifth of the American population that was of African descent — every escaped slave became a fugitive-for-life subject to possible seizure at any moment anywhere within the territory of the United States, and even free blacks lived at constant risk of being kidnapped and sold into bondage by unscrupulous slavecatchers. Washington made no known comment on the act,46 but even if he had personally opposed it, vetoing the legislation would have been futile — the vote margin in the U.S. Senate was not recorded, but the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Fugitive Slave Act overwhelmingly by a margin of 47 to 8.47
Below are biographical sketches of the nine enslaved Africans who worked in the President's House. Scraps of information have been pieced together from numerous sources, although precious little is known about their actual lives. Approximate age, occupation and legal status come from the 1759 Custis estate inventory and the 1786 and 1799 Mount Vernon slave censuses.48 Information on where they were to be housed in Philadelphia comes from the Washington-Lear correspondence. The nine enslaved Africans left no writings, nothing of their own thoughts or inner life, so that nearly everything that is known about them is filtered through a white perspective. The point of view, biases, and motives of each chronicler should be borne in mind whether he/she be a Custis grandchild, the President's secretary, or an abolitionist minister.
Moll, a dower slave, was a nanny for Martha Custis's two children from her first marriage (two others died in early childhood). She was about nineteen when she was brought to Mount Vernon following the January 1759 wedding of Martha Custis and George Washington, and so was born around 1739. She probably nursed Mrs. Washington's daughter Patsy until the sickly girl's death at age seventeen in 1773. There is no record of her having had a husband or children of her own.
In the New York and Philadelphia households Moll was described as the First Lady's personal maid,49 but she probably was primarily the nanny to her two youngest grandchildren. When she arrived at the President's House in 1790, it is likely that she slept in one of the divided rooms over the kitchen with either eleven-year-old Nelly or nine-year-old G. W. Parke Custis.
Moll is not mentioned in Martha Washington's surviving correspondence, although the household account books from New York and Philadelphia regularly record purchases of shoes, stockings and fabric for her. The Washingtons do not seem to have worried that she would take advantage of the Gradual Abolition Law to obtain her freedom — at least once she seems to have stayed in Pennsylvania beyond the six-month deadline. Moll was the only one of the initial eight enslaved Africans to work in the President's House for the whole six-and-a-quarter years and to return to Mount Vernon at the end of Washington's presidency. She was recorded as standing at the door of his bedroom as he died on December 14, 1799.50 After Martha Washington's death in 1802, Moll would have become part of the household of one of the Custis grandchildren — it is not known which. One of them later described her as "Mammy Molly, my old Nurse, who always overwhelm'd me with caresses when I visited Mt Vernon, & from whom I was ever afflicted to part — "51
Austin, a dower slave, was the son of Betty, a seamstress, who brought him as a baby when she came to Mount Vernon following the January 1759 wedding of Martha Custis and George Washington. The identity of his father is not known, but Austin was of mixed racial heritage. Beginning in the mid- 1770s, he worked as a waiter in the mansion at Mount Vernon, and appears also to have worked as a postilion or footman for the carriage. During the Revolutionary War, Austin probably was one of the young men who accompanied Martha Washington on visits to her husband in the field (Giles probably was the other).
Austin was the half-brother of Oney Judge. His wife was another dower, now thought to have been a seamstress named Charlotte.52 (Moll, whom past historians had presumed to have been his wife, was about eighteen years his senior.) Austin's position in the presidential household is unclear. First- person accounts of State dinners describe all the waiters as white, but it is possible that he served the family meals. Some of the purchases for him in the household account books seem related to the house and others to the stables, which may indicate that he performed a dual role at the President's House. Austin and Lewis List, a white servant, accompanied Washington and his secretary on a return trip from Mount Vernon in late October 1793, but Philadelphia was in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic so their destination became Germantown, Pennsylvania, six miles northwest of the city. Initially, he and List may have been the entire staff of the Deshler-Morris House, which served as the executive mansion for two-and-a-half weeks until the crisis was over. The following summer, the Washingtons vacationed at the Germantown house, and their staff likely included Austin, Moll, Hercules and Oney Judge.53
Austin was trusted to make long rides on his own, including trips from Philadelphia to Mount Vernon. He died on December 20, 1794, during one of these solo trips after a fall from his horse near Harford, Maryland. He was survived by a widow and five children: two sons, Billy (born ca. 1782), Timothy (born 1785), and three daughters, Elvey, Jenny and Eliza (probably born between 1786 and 1795). After Martha Washington's death in 1802, Austin's children seem to have been inherited by G.W. Parke Custis, and probably were moved to Arlington House (now Arlington National Cemetery).54
Hercules, one of Washington's slaves, was the chief cook at Mount Vernon by 1786. His wife was a dower slave called Lame Alice, a seamstress, and they had three children, Richmond (born 1776), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). Alice died in 1787. Washington was dissatisfied with the cook at the presidential residences in New York, and brought Hercules to Philadelphia in November 1790. Richmond came along as a kitchenworker. It is likely that Hercules, his son and Christopher shared a divided room on the fourth floor of the President's House.
Hercules's expertise as a cook was appreciated by the Washingtons, and he was given special privileges, among them earning money by selling leftovers from the presidential kitchen. A vigorous portrait attributed to Gilbert Stuart traditionally is thought to depict him (fig. 9).
From Tobias Lear, we know that Hercules was aware that the Washingtons planned to rotate him out of Pennsylvania to prevent his qualifying for emancipation under the state's Gradual Abolition Law.55 In June 1791, he stayed several days beyond the six-month deadline but did not register with the state, possibly because doing so would have meant permanent separation from his family — his son had been sent back to Virginia ahead of the deadline, his two daughters were at Mount Vernon, and he may have had a second wife and another daughter there. Hercules also may not have understood that as soon as he left Pennsylvania the residency he had established would be void.
Hercules escaped to freedom in March 1797, reportedly on the morning the newly-retired President and his family began their return trip to Virginia.56 Less than a month after the escape, Louis-Philippe (later king of France) visited Mount Vernon. His manservant spoke with Hercules's daughter and "ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."57
By the provisions of Washington's will Hercules was emancipated in 1801, making him no longer a fugitive. Nothing more is known of him. Richmond, Evey and Delia, dower slaves through their mother, remained in bondage.
George Washington Parke Custis's recollections of Hercules:
The chief cook would have been termed in modern parlance, a celebrated artiste. He was named Hercules, and familiarly termed Uncle Harkless. Trained in the mysteries of his part from early youth, and in the palmy days of Virginia, when her thousand chimneys smoked to indicate the generous hospitality that reigned throughout the whole length and breadth of her wide domain, Uncle Harkless was, at the period of the first presidency, as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary arts as could be found in the United States. He was a dark-brown man, little, if any above the usual size, yet possessed of such great muscular power as to entitle him to be compared with his namesake of fabulous history.
The chief cook gloried in the cleanliness and nicety of his kitchen. Under his iron discipline, wo[e] to his underlings if speck or spot could be discovered on the tables or dressers, or if the utensils did not shine like polished silver. With the luckless wights who had offended in these particulars there was no arrest of punishment, for judgment and execution went hand in hand.
The steward, and indeed the whole household, treated the chief cook with such respect, as well for his valuable services as for his general good character and pleasing manners.
It was while preparing the Thursday or Congress dinner that Uncle Harkless shone in all his splendor. During his labors upon this banquet he required some half dozen aprons, and napkins out of number. It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders, while he, the great master- spirit, seemed to possess the power of ubiquity, and to be everywhere at the same moment.
When the steward in snow-white apron, silk shorts and stockings, and hair in full powder, placed the first dish on the table, the clock being on the stroke of four, "the labors of Hercules" ceased.
While the masters of the republic were engaged in discussing the savory viands of the Congress dinner, the chief cook retired to make his toilet for an evening promenade. His prerequisites from the slops of the kitchen were from one to two hundred dollars a year. Though homely in person, he lavished the most of these large avails upon dress. In making his toilet his linen was of unexceptional whiteness and quality, then black silk shorts, ditto waistcoat, ditto stockings, shoes highly polished, with large buckles covering a considerable part of the foot, blue cloth with velvet collar and bright metal buttons, a long watch-chain dangling from his fob, a cocked-hat and gold-headed cane completed the grand costume of the celebrated dandy (for there were dandies in those days) of the president's kitchen.
Thus arrayed, the chief cook invariably passed out at the front door, the porter making a low bow, which was promptly returned. Joining his brother-loungers of the pave, he proceeded up Market street, attracting considerable attention, that street being, in the old times, the resort where fashionables "did most congregate." Many were not a little surprised to behold so extraordinary a personage, while others who knew him would make a formal and respectful bow, that they might receive in return the salute of one of the most polished gentlemen and the veriest dandy of nearly sixty years ago.58
Richmond was the son of Hercules and Lame Alice. He was born in 1776, and had two younger sisters, Evey and Delia. Because their mother was a dower slave they also were dowers. Richmond was eleven when his mother died in 1787. Three years later his father asked Washington's permission to bring him to the President's House. Washington reluctantly agreed, and Richmond worked as a scullion in the kitchen for the first year in Philadelphia. Among the teenager's duties would have been to sweep the chimneys. He probably slept with his father and Christopher in a room on the fourth floor of the main house. He was returned to Mount Vernon in October 1791, and probably worked there in the mansion kitchen.
Richmond was caught stealing money at Mount Vernon in November 1796. Washington made the assumption that the theft was part of a planned escape attempt, possibly the father and son together. Hercules did escape to freedom several months later in Philadelphia, but alone. Richmond was demoted to a field laborer and was unmarried and working at River Farm in 1799. His fate and that of his sisters after Martha Washington's death in 1802 is not known.
Giles, a dower slave, worked as a postilion or footman for the carriage at Mount Vernon, and sometimes as a driver. He appears to have been about the same age as Austin, a teenager in 1774, which would have meant he was born in the late 1750s. During the Revolutionary War, Giles probably was the young man who accompanied Martha Washington on her visit to the encampment at Valley Forge from January to June 1778. There is no record of his having had a wife or children.
Giles accompanied Washington to Philadelphia in May 1787, for the Constitutional Convention,59 as did the general's body servant, Will Lee. The two black men would have lodged with Washington in Robert Morris's house on Market Street, which three years later became the President's House. They returned to Mount Vernon in September.
Giles was brought to New York in April 1789, to work in the stables of the presidential residence, and probably accompanied Washington on his Northern tour in October and November. A year later he was brought to Philadelphia, and would have lived in the quarters adjoining the stables of the President's House. Giles drove the baggage wagon for Washington's Southern tour in March through June 1791. Early in the tour he was somehow injured so severely that he was no longer able to ride a horse, and was left behind at Mount Vernon when Washington returned to Philadelphia.60 Giles is not listed in the 1799 Mount Vernon slave census, which likely indicates that he had died.
Paris, one of Washington's slaves, worked as a stableboy at Mount Vernon. He was younger than Austin and Giles, a teen-ager in April 1789, when he was brought to New York to work in the stables of the presidential residence. He may have accompanied Washington on his Northern tour in October and November of that year. Paris was brought to Philadelphia in November 1790, and would have lived in the quarters adjoining the stables of the President's House.
In March 1791, Paris accompanied Washington on his Southern tour, but his misbehavior on thetrip angered the President. As punishment, Washington left him behind at Mount Vernon and returned to Philadelphia without him.
There was a good deal of sickness at Mount Vernon in the autumn of 1794. In late September or October, Washington's estate manager wrote him of Paris's death.61
Christopher Sheels (born ca. 1775), a dower slave, was the nephew of Will, also known as Billy Lee, who had been Washington's body servant throughout the Revolutionary War. In the post-war years, Will was injured in two serious falls and became incapacitated. Christopher assisted his uncle in attending to the President in New York in 1789, and when the capital moved to Philadelphia the following year, Will was retired to Mount Vernon and the teen-ager became the President's sole attendant. Christopher seems to have been one of the few Mount Vernon slaves who could read and write. In Philadelphia, he probably lived on the fourth floor of the main house in a room with Hercules and Richmond. The length of Christopher's stay in the city may have been as little as a year — he was back at Mount Vernon in January 1792.
George Washington Motier Lafayette, the teen-aged son of the Marquis de Lafayette, lived with the Washingtons for more than a year in Philadelphia and Virginia, beginning in April 1796. Christopher was close in age to him, and the two seem to have become friendly. Soon after the President's retirement Christopher was bitten by a dog that was feared rabid, and was sent to Lebanon, Pennsylvania for treatment. He and young Lafayette traveled together for part of the journey. Several weeks later, Washington wrote the Frenchman of Christopher's recovery.62
In September 1799, Christopher requested Washington's permission to marry an enslaved African from another plantation, one who also seems to have been able to read and write. A few days later Washington intercepted a note sent between them outlining an escape plan, and foiled it. Three months later Christopher attended to Washington on his deathbed.
After Martha Washington's death in 1802, Christopher would have been inherited by one of the Custis grandchildren. Nothing is known of his subsequent whereabouts.
More is known about Oney Judge than any other Mount Vernon slave because interviews with her appeared in abolitionist newspapers in the nineteenth century.63
Oney (born c. 1774) was a dower slave, the daughter of Betty, a seamstress, and Andrew Judge, a white English tailor who was an indentured servant at Mount Vernon in the early 1770s. Austin, about fifteen years Oney's senior, would have been her half-brother. Washington does not seem to have recognized her as having been Judge's child, which may indicate that Judge himself did not admit paternity. At about age ten she was brought into the manor house, probably as a playmate for Martha Washington's granddaughter, Nelly Custis. Oney became an expert at needlework, and eventually took over the position of Martha Washington's body servant.
In 1789, Oney was one of seven enslaved Africans brought by the Washingtons to New York to work in the presidential residence. With the change in the capital in November 1790, she was brought to Philadelphia, and probably shared a room over the kitchen with Nelly at the President's House. Oney was recorded as accompanying the First Lady on shopping trips and social visits. There are entries in the household account books for clothes for the teen-aged girl and trips to the circus. Philadelphia was a center of abolitionism and had a large free black population. Oney made friends among the free blacks.
Martha Washington's eldest granddaughter, Elizabeth Custis, married English expatriate Thomas Law on March 20, 1796. The Washingtons were unable to attend the Virginia wedding, but invited the couple to visit Philadelphia and honeymoon at the President's House. Martha Washington informed Oney that she was to be an eventual gift to the bride.
Oney planned her escape with the aid of her free black friends. She slipped away one night in May or June 1796, while the Washingtons were having dinner, and was hidden until she could find passage on a northbound ship. She either sailed directly to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, or arrived there by way of New York. Later that summer, Elizabeth Langdon, daughter of Senator John Langdon of New Hampshire, spotted Oney walking on a street in Portsmouth. Elizabeth was one of Nelly's closest friends and a frequent visitor to the President's House. Oney was able to elude Elizabeth, but Washington was soon informed of where she could be found.
Washington asked Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott to handle the matter, and the latter wrote to Joseph Whipple, the Collector of Customs of Portsmouth, requesting his help in the return of the President's wife's servant. Whipple attempted to comply with what must have seemed like an intimidating order, but warned that abducting Oney and placing her on a ship headed south might cause a riot on the docks.64 Whipple interrogated her, and reported to Wolcott that, "After a cautious examination it appeared to me that she had not been decoyed away as had been apprehended, but that a thirst for compleat freedom which she was informed would take place on her arrival here & Boston had been her only motive for absconding."65 Oney tried to negotiate through Whipple, offering to return to the Washingtons if she would be guaranteed freedom upon their deaths. An indignant President responded in person to Whipple's letter: "To enter into such a compromise with her, as she suggested to you, is totally inadmissable, ... it would neither be politic or just to reward unfaithfulness with a premature preference [of freedom]; and thereby discontent before hand the minds of all her fellow-servants who by their steady attachments are far more deserving than herself of favor."66
Two years later, Washington's nephew, Burnwell Bassett, Jr., traveled to New Hampshire onbusiness. He was entertained by the Langdons and, over dinner, mentioned that one of the things he planned to accomplish was the recapture of Oney. This time the Langdons helped Oney, who was now married to a sailor named Jack Staines and the mother of a child.67 Word was sent for her family to immediately go into hiding. Bassett returned to Virginia without her.
Oney had three children with Staines, all of whom predeceased her, as did he. Apparently in her place, her younger sister, Delphy, was bequeathed to Mrs. Washington's granddaughter in 1802.68 Because of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 which Washington signed into law in Philadelphia (likely in his private office, barely a dozen feet from where she slept), Oney lived the last fifty-two years of her life as a fugitive. Oney Judge Staines died in Greenland, New Hampshire on February 25, 1848.
Evidence of Joe, a ninth enslaved African brought to the President's House, was uncovered and published in 2004.69 Washington mentioned "Postilion Joe" in an October 19, 1795 letter, written toward the end of an eight-day journey from Mount Vernon to the capital.70 We can infer that Joe arrived in Philadelphia the following day with the rest of the traveling party. A postilion was a footman for the presidential coach, and Joe would have worked in the stables of the President's House and probably been housed in the quarters between the kitchen and the stables. It is not known how long Joe was in Philadelphia — he may have stayed until March 1797, the end of Washington's presidency.
There is no documentation for Joe's exact age. As a dower, his absence from the Custis estate inventory likely means he was born after January 1759. Similarly, his inclusion as an adult in the 1786 Mount Vernon slave census implies that he was then over age fourteen. His wife, Sall, a seamstress, was born around 1769; Joe may have been about the same age. At the time he came to Philadelphia, they had three sons — Henry, 7, Elijah, 3, and Dennis, 1.
Sall and the children were owned by Washington, and received their freedom following his death by the provisions of his will. They took the surname "Richardson." Joe would have been one of the 153 dowers inherited by Martha Washington's grandchildren following her death in 1802 — it is not known which. Although he remained enslaved, Joe and Sall Richardson managed to stay together and had at least five children, all of whom were free.71 Two of their sons, Joe Jr. and Levi, were working at Mount Vernon in 1835.72
Independence National Historical Park has identified five additional enslaved Africans in Washington's Philadelphia household — but three of these were white servants, nothing is known about the fourth, and the fifth never existed. INHP distributed a report entitled Background and Preliminary Planning for Interpreting the Site at 190 High Street — Now NE Corner of 6th and Market Streets at a May 13, 2002, meeting with historians and community leaders; and at the Pew Charitable Trusts symposium on the President's House four days later. This listed Henry, John and Martin among the enslaved. Entries in the household account book kept in Philadelphia between March 1793 and March 1797 (purchased by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1904 and published in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography between 1905 and 1907) make it clear that Henry Waskan and John Klein were not enslaved Africans but German indentured servants:
[August 22, 1794] Contingt Exp's ... Pd Cap[tain] Chris. Franklin for the passage ect. of John Klein for which he is to serve three years ... [$]57.10.
[September 6, 1794] Contingt Exps ... pd B Bohlen for 2 Dutch servants as follows Jo. Henry Waskan £25.19.0 Margt Held £188.8.131.52
There is no evidence that Martin Klein (John's brother?) was an enslaved African: the only Martin listed in the 1799 Mount Vernon slave census was an infant. Martin Klein first appears in the documentary record in a May 4, 1792 entry published in Stephen Decatur, Jr.'s Private Affairs of George Washington (1933). (Decatur, a descendant of Tobias Lear, discovered the first volume of the household account books in his attic in the 1920s. This listed the presidential household purchases during Washington's sixteen months in New York and his first twenty-eight months in Philadelphia. Decatur published extensive excerpts in the 1933 book, along with his expert commentary, but the complete first volume has never been published or available to scholars.) Decatur conjectured: "Martin was a white boy who worked about the stables in return for his keep. He was probably a recently arrived German immigrant.74 The circumstantial evidence makes it much more likely that Martin was an indentured servant. He was troublesome, and Washington had him incarcerated (not something one could do to a volunteer, and a wage worker the president could have simply fired):
Case 154. Martin Cline, confined Aug. 6, 1794. charged on Oath of James Germain, Steward to the President of the United States (and done by the desire of the President), with being frequently Drunk, neglecting his duty, and otherwise misbehaving. To be Kept until legally discharged. Discharged Aug 22.75
There is also an unexplained payment made to him in March 1795:
[March 30, 1795] House Exps' ... p'd Martin Klein in full ... [$]120.00.76
This is consistent with the "freedom dues" or severance required by an indenture contract when a servant has fulfilled his term and is leaving the household. And Martin Klein is never mentioned again.
A revised version of this INHP report was posted on the Liberty Bell Center page of the INHP Web site in October 2002. This listed Henry (again), Davy, and Bain among the enslaved Africans. Who this Davy was remains a mystery. He is known only through a single entry in the second volume of the household account book, recorded during the Washingtons' 1794 vacation in Germantown, Pennsylvania:
[August 9, 1794] Contgt Exps pd. (by J.G.) for a pr.shoes for Davy.77
At his time there were four enslaved Africans at Mount Vernon named Davy — an infant, a toddler, a carpenter (no age recorded), and an overseer in his fifties — but none would seem a likely candidate for the presidential household. Had this Davy been an enslaved African, he probably would have remained in Philadelphia for at least several months. The absence of additional entries for him in the household account book or any reference to him in Washington's correspondence points to the likely conclusion that he was a local Germantown boy hired temporarily (and possibly replaced by John Klein two weeks later).
There is no evidence that a household servant named Bain ever existed, let alone that he was an enslaved African. B-A-I-N is a century-old typo in the household account book transcript:
[September 19, 1794] House Exps ... gave Bain [sic] to buy pomatum [hair wax] for Mrs. Washington ... 37[¢].78
The entry should read B-A-U-R, as in Jacob Baur, Washington's valet and hairdresser.
The list of enslaved Africans on the INHP Web site was never corrected, but, after thirteen months, the report was removed from the Liberty Bell page in November 2003.
James Thomas Flexner also contributed to the confusion about the enslaved Africans in the President's House. He discovered a letter that he misinterpreted to mean that Washington had freed an enslaved African named John Cline at the end of his presidency.79 Washington wrote of having granted Cline (Klein, see above) "his freedom," but this meant having released him from the months of service remaining on his indenture contract, not having free him from slavery. Flexner also jumped to the conclusion that Nathan, a cook at Mount Vernon, had worked at the President's House.80 Although Washington wrote of his intention to bring either "Hercules or Nathan from the Kitchen at Mount Vernon to that in Philadelphia,81 only the former made the trip.
A century ago, Leila Herbert claimed that Washington brought an additional enslaved African to Philadelphia. She stated that Cyrus, a postilion at Mount Vernon, worked in the President's House stables, but gave no reference for this (or nearly anything else).82 Cyrus is not mentioned in any of the documentary evidence related to the house. But if the presence of a tenth enslaved African in Washington's Philadelphia presidential household should ever be proven, it would not be surprising if he turned out to be Cyrus.
Fig. 10. 2003 National Park Service map showing the President's House ground plan overlaid on the Liberty Bell Center outline. North is to the top. The smokehouse is the small building attached to the Wash House, and its extension is labeled "Slave Quarters."
The issue of "slave quarters" and their location at the very door of the new Liberty Bell Center has caused tremendous consternation at Independence National Historical Park (fig. 10). INHP has had the responsibility of interpreting the President's House since 1974, when it took over control of Independence Mall from the state. That this responsibility was essentially ignored for more than twenty-five years may be attributable to the jungle of misinformation about the house, to embarrassment over the public toilet built on its site, to research and interpretation having been focused on existing buildings, to underfunding and understaffing, to apparent public apathy, and a whole host of other excuses. But, as the following pages illustrate, there seems to be little doubt that the issues of slavery and race played a part in INHP's resistance to fully interpreting the site.
The Washington-Lear correspondence establishes that the smokehouse was located one-room's distance from the stables. In 1790, Washington directed that the smokehouse be converted into a lodging room for stableworkers, two or three of whom were enslaved Africans. Lear counter-proposed that the building be extended to the stables to make two lodging rooms, and the President agreed. The segregation by race in the servant housing assignments planned for elsewhere in the house suggests that one of these rooms was to be for the white coachman and the other for the black stableworkers.83
In late November 2000, archaeologists from John Milner Associates, Inc. (JMA) discovered the octagonal stone pit of Robert Morris's icehouse at the southwest corner of the President's House property. The archaeologists initially dismissed this extraordinary artifact as a nineteenth-century construction because the map on which the archaeologists relied showed Morris's stables at that location. (In the 1930s, the WPA had redrawn and altered the 1785 ground plan, moving the coach house and stables twenty-four feet to the west. In 1985 INHP created a map that was based, in part, on the WPA's altered ground plan. This was the map that misled the archaeologists in 2000.)
On December 7, I presented my research on the President's House to the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, making the conjecture that the icehouse had been located at the property's southwest corner. It was not until several days later that I learned that the icehouse pit had been discovered in this same spot. JMA and I began sharing our work, and their maps confirmed something that I had long suspected — the site of the smokehouse (the unidentified building shown on the 1785 ground plan between the kitchen and stables) would be directly outside the front door to the planned Liberty Bell Center.
(The 1785 groundplan shows that the smokehouse could not have stood on the stables' east side (because of the coach house) or south side (because of Minor Street). The discovery of the icehouse pit ruled out the west side of the stables as the location. The unlabeled building shown on the 1785 groundplan — 11 feet, 8 inches north of the stables — is the only known structure that could have been the smokehouse.)
Knowing that Washington had designated that stableworkers — most of whom were enslaved Africans — be housed in the smokehouse, I immediately contacted the Park Service, although it was two months before an INHP official met with me. He was skeptical of my research, and attempted to challenge it using the WPA's flawed work, Eberlein's 1953 monograph and the comprehensive theory (all described and refuted in the 2002 article).84 Then, he cut off communication between us. Rather than dealing with the "slave quarters" issue and its potential effect on the planned LBC building, INHP chose to ignore it.
Five months after this meeting, INHP published a report concluding that the back-buildings shown on the 1785 groundplan had no longer existed in 1790.85 This was a reversal of the position INHP had held for the previous sixteen years.
(In 1985, INHP had created a map of Block One of Independence Mall showing the properties as they had existed at the time of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. This included the Robert Morris House, which three years later became the President's House. Although the coachhouse/stable was erroneously moved to the southwest corner of the property (following the WPA), the dimensions of the back-buildings were the same as those shown on the 1785 ground plan.86 An August 1997 report on the 500 block of Market Street by INHP consultant Sharon Ann Holt mentioned nothing about the house's backbuildings having been demolished and replaced. INHP's 1985 map was presented to the archaeologists as accurate in 2000. I had extensive meetings with JMA in December 2000 and January 2001, and there was no mention of the house's backbuildings having been demolished and replaced.)
INHP's new conclusion was based on minor discrepancies in the recorded dimensions of the house's back-buildings at three points in time. In a comparison of the recorded dimensions, common sense would argue that there was a strong likelihood that the 54-by-18-foot backbuilding recorded in the 1773 insurance survey, the 55-by-20-foot kitchen/washhouse shown on the 1785 ground plan, and the 52-by-18- foot (interior dimensions?) kitchen listed in the 1798 insurance policy all had been one and the same building. But the August 2001 report did not allow for this possibility. Instead, it used these minor discrepancies to discredit the best historical evidence: the 1785 ground plan. INHP bolstered its arguments by relying on the same 1985 INHP map that had misled the archaeologists nine, without ever mentioning that this map was inaccurate and had itself been discredited by the discovery of the icehouse pit nine months earlier. INHP's denial that enslaved Africans could have been housed outside the planned Liberty Bell Center was so complete that the near-certainty that the unlabeled building shown on the 1785 ground plan had been the smokehouse was never mentioned; even the word "smokehouse" did not appear in the 110-page report.
Instead, the August 2001 report proposed that the unlabeled building shown on the 1785 groundplan between the kitchen and the stables had been the icehouse, even though this structure was barely one-quarter the size of the "16 [foot] square" icehouse described by Robert Morris in 1784.88 Following the November 2000 discovery of the icehouse pit some forty feet from this site, INHP proposed that the unlabeled building could have been an earlier icehouse,89 but not that it could have been the smokehouse.
INHP presented new arguments about where enslaved Africans had been housed in an October 2002 article in The Philadelphia Inquirer:
Some scholars and African Americans are dismayed over what they perceive as inaccurate or misleading statements about slavery contained in a preliminary National Park Service text commemorating the house in Philadelphia used by George Washington during his presidency.
The text asserts that Washington, who kept as many as eight slaves at the Market Street residence, housed his "servants" throughout the house. The building had no "slave quarters," according to the Park Service, because no part of it was used exclusively by slaves. ... Phil Sheridan, spokesman for Independence National Historical Park, said that "primary documents call it [the rear of the President's House] the servants' hall." There are no historical records "that said it was a slave quarters," Sheridan said. "If someone has evidence we are in error, we would like to see it." ... "There's no question slaves existed on the site," Sheridan said. "But we're standing with what Washington called it, and we are standing with the fact that no one knows if slaves slept there or if slaves didn't sleep there."90
(INHP's spokesman was mistaken: the Servants' Hall and smokehouse were different buildings. The Servants' Hall was a dining hall and work space — save (perhaps) for the two small lodging rooms for white married servants proposed for its south end. Washington may not have used the term "slave quarters" to describe the smokehouse, but he did designate that it be used to house stableworkers — most of whom were enslaved Africans. There is no evidence to suggest that the stableworkers would have been housed anywhere else since all the other known lodging rooms can be accounted for in the housing assignments in the Washington-Lear correspondence and were designated to house others. Still, under the strictest standards, one must infer that the stableworkers were housed in the smokehouse.)
Based on the arguments made in the Inquirer, INHP officials assured Philadelphia's African- American leaders that there was insufficient evidence to mark a "slave quarters." The Appropriations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives had inserted a provision in the Department of the Interior's FY2003 budget requiring the National Park Service to study the President's House, and report back to it.91 In compliance with this directive, NPS initiated a design process for the site in October 2002. Relying on the information supplied by INHP, designers from the Olin Partnership spent months under the misapprehension that the Servants' Hall had been a large dormitory in which both white and black servants were housed. The designers proposed that this building's entire footprint be set aside for a commemoration of the enslaved Africans, until INHP admitted that there was no evidence that any of them ever had been housed there.
Preliminary designs for the whole site were unveiled in January 2003, at a public meeting at Philadelphia's African American Museum. In these designs, the smokehouse area — the only part of the 1785 groundplan that can be expressly associated with enslaved Africans — was "erased" from the map.92 The designs were submitted to the House Appropriations Committee in March with no smokehouse/slave quarters marked.
That same month, INHP defended the erasure of the smokehouse at a symposium inspired by the President's House controversy held at Cliveden in Germantown, Pennsylvania. An INHP historian argued that there was no documentary evidence that the building had existed. I responded that the Washington- Lear correspondence contains multiple references to the smokehouse, and that it seemed unlikely that the president and his secretary had been suffering from a collective hallucination. In a subsequent letter INHP again dismissed the existence of the smokehouse: "While the correspondence indicates a desire to transform a smokehouse into quarters for stable hands, some of whom were enslaved, there is no evidence that this intention was actualized. Indeed, the 1798 survey makes no mention of the purported structure, we cannot mark it in the ground.93 Following my stinging reply, INHP abandoned this ludicrous argument.
As the citizens' advisory organization for INHP, the Independence Hall Association wrote to the House Appropriations Committee in early April 2003, praising the Olin Partnership's basic concept for the President's House site, but recommending a number of changes — foremost among these, the marking of the "slave quarters." 94 IHA also proposed that the whole 55-by-35-foot footprint of the house's kitchen ell be utilized to commemorate the enslaved Africans and to educate visitors about slavery before they arrived at the door to the Liberty Bell Center. The design of the LBC, then more than a year into construction, called for two massive brick piers supporting a 40-foot-long decorative trellis to be erected on the site of the kitchen ell. In the letter to the Appropriations Committee and in a subsequent face-to-face meeting with INHP officials, IHA board members strongly advocated that these piers not be built — but, five months later, they were.
In September, as the piers were under construction, community representatives who had participated in the previous winter's tainted design process took their concerns directly to INHP's new superintendent, Mary A. Bomar. She had been unaware of the details of the controversy, and once it was explained to her that the decorative piers would preclude even the possibility of using the kitchen ell's footprint for a commemoration of the enslaved Africans, she ordered them demolished.
The Liberty Bell Center's grand opening was a month later on October 9, 2003. In his remarks, Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell alluded to the house and to "those whose history has not been told," and Pennsylvania Congressman Joseph Hoeffel spoke at length about the importance of the site. Philadelphia Mayor John Street made the President's House a major part of his speech, and pledged $1.5 million from the City for the site95
INHP convened a Roundtable of scholars on November 18, 2003, posing a list of Questions for Discussion. Some of the participants found two of them particularly disturbing:
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?"
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.96
While participants disagreed over what term should be used to describe the smokehouse and its proposed extension — "slave quarters," or something else? — it was the finding of the Roundtable that there was sufficient evidence to infer that enslaved Africans had been housed there.97
An October 30, 2004 public forum on the President's House attracted hundreds to the Independence Visitor Center.98 To illustrate the site for the meeting, a full-sized outline of the main house and its backbuildings was temporarily marked in the entrance plaza of the Liberty Bell Center (fig. 11). At the conclusion of the forum there was a guided tour of the outline during which, for the first time, INHP publicly acknowledged the "slave quarters."
The public forum was a major turning point in the controversy. In December 2004, INHP committed to marking the backbuildings between the kitchen and stables exactly as they are shown on the 1785 groundplan, and to labeling the area "Smokehouse/Slave Quarters." This breakthrough is attributable to the work of INHP's gifted superintendent, Mary A. Bomar, who arrived in Philadelphia in February 2003, and is now the new director of the Park Service's northeast region. An interpretive marker at the site will explain that the best historical evidence indicates that Washington's stableworkers — including enslaved Africans — would have been housed there.
Despite the controversies of the recent past, the outlook at Independence National Historical Park seems hopeful. The wealth of new information about the President's House presents an extraordinary opportunity for interpretation — of the presidencies of Washington and Adams, of the executive branch of the federal government in the Early Republic, and of the issues of freedom and unfreedom through the stories of nine enslaved individuals, two of whom escaped to freedom from the house. Appropriate recognition of the site will also fulfill a heretofore-neglected part of the mission outlined in INHP's "charter" — The Final Report to the United States Congress by the Philadelphia National Shrines Park Commission (December 1947), authored by Charles E. Peterson.99
In the future, visitors to INHP will be able to experience all three branches of the federal government during Philadelphia's 1790-1800 tenure as temporary capital of the United States, imagine themselves within some manifestation of the "White House" of Washington and Adams, and learn about the lives and contributions of all the residents of the President's House.
Peterson, who died in August 2004, would have been proud.
Independence Hall Association EDWARD LAWLER, JR.
POSTSCRIPT: On September 6, 2005, U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah announced a federal appropriation of $3.6 million for the President's House site. This, combined with the City of Philadelphia's commitment of $1.5 million, guarantees that the project will be completed.