By Renée Gordon
The American Revolution unofficially ended in 1781 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. It officially ended when George III declared a Proclamation of Cessation of Hostilities in February of 1783 and then signed the Treaty of Paris seven months later formally recognizing the United States of America as an autonomous country.
On April 6, 1789 delegates from each colony met to elect the country’s first president. The Electoral College cast sixty-nine votes and unanimously George Washington was elected president with the runner-up, John Adams, being named vice president. Washington was inaugurated on April 30th of that year on Wall Street on the balcony of Federal Hall.
An indication of the importance of establishing a capital is the fact that Article 1, sec. 8 of the Constitution dealt with the issue and at the meeting of the First Congress on March 4, 1789 it was discussed. In May of 1790 it was again brought to the floor and the “Southern Plan” was accepted. On July 16, 1790 the Residence Act legalized the founding of a permanent capital on the eastern shore of the Potomac River and provided for a temporary government capital until the permanent one was complete. That temporary capital, arguably our country’s first, was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
George Washington lived in a 6th & Market Sts., the High Street, residence that would serve as the executive mansion from November 1790 until March 1797. The second president, John Adams, would live there until the executive mansion in Washington, DC was ready in June of 1800. (It was not officially named the “White House” until 1901.)
The widow Mary Masters built the largest house in the city in 1767. In 1772 Mary’s daughter Polly married William Penn’s grandson Richard and Mary gave them the house as a wedding gift. During the Revolution the mansion was the headquarters of the, Commander-in-Chief of British Forces, General Howe. Major-General Benedict Arnold took residence when the British abandoned Philadelphia and after his resignation the French Consul rented it.
The house suffered a devastating fire in 1780 but Robert Morris, financier and founder of the first federal bank in the country, purchased and rebuilt it to mirror the original. Subsequently he added a 2-story bathhouse, icehouse and a second level to the kitchen. The bathhouse was state-of-the-art and provided both hot and cold water, six bedrooms and a 4-room servant’s quarter.
When Washington rented the house he found it too small and immediately added a 2-story bow, a servant’s hall and quarters, expanded stables and converted the second level of the bathhouse into his private workspace, an early Oval Office.
When the Capital was relocated the mansion became the Union Hotel and in 1832 the interior was completely remodeled into a trio of shops. In the 20th century all the buildings on the square were razed to establish Independence Mall and for 48 years public facilities were on the site of the mansion.
An archeological dig in 2002 led to the discovery of structural remains of the kitchen and passageway, used by the enslaved to carry food to the main house, directly in front of the Liberty Bell Pavilion. Politicians, community activists, historians, the National Park Service and citizens formed a coalition to preserve the site and tell the story of “all” who lived within the walls of the President’s House in order to present a richer, more holistic, version of the political and social climate of the times.
George and Martha Washington arrived with an enormous household consisting of approximately twenty-eight people including nine enslaved Africans and fifteen white servants. The numbers would vary throughout his tenure. A slave owner from the age of eleven, he selected people to accompany him to Philadelphia from among the more than 300 he held in bondage at Mount Vernon.
Philadelphia’s historic district is widely known as the most historic square mile in the United States and a visit to the President’s House, and the surrounding area, is invaluable in understanding the founding of our nation.
The Independence (Graff) House, site of Jefferson’s rented rooms while he penned the Declaration of Independence, is located at 7th & Market Sts. Here he wrote a section in the original draft that dealt with slavery and might have led to its abolition but was removed in order to gain southern votes. A display in the house interprets the event.
Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was adopted and the Constitution was signed, is one block away. In stark juxtaposition to Independence Hall is Washington Square Park, 6th & Walnut, used as a place for slave trading and a burial ground. Blacks were known to gather there and it was also referred to as Congo Square. In an even more ironic twist, it was in the President’s House that Washington signed the first Fugitive Slave Act in 1793, within sight of the place where “all men are created equal” was written.
These issues of slavery and freedom are explored through the lives of the nine enslaved that lived and worked at the Executive Mansion. The nine were Oney, Judge, Moll, Austin, Hercules, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, and Joe (Richardson).
In 1780 Pennsylvania passed a Gradual Abolition Law, the first in the hemisphere, to emancipate slaves. It banned importation of slaves and freed any children born after March 1, 1780, effectively freeing the last slave 67-years later. It further stated that slaves of non-resident slaveholders could obtain their freedom after a 6-month residency. Washington avoided his slaves gaining their freedom by rotating them, taking them out of the state for a short time prior to the end of their 6-months. In 1788 the law had been amended to prohibit this practice but Washington ignored the prohibition claiming he was forced to reside in the state because of its status as capital.
Research continues to shed light on the lives of some of the enslaved. Giles was a dower slave, brought into Washington’s estate through his marriage to Martha. He was Washington’s driver and was with him until disabled in 1791.
Joe (Richardson) was a father of three children and joined Washington’s Philadelphia staff as footman and stable hand in 1795. His wife Sall, a seamstress, remained with his sons at Mount Vernon.
Austin was a trusted dower slave. He served from November 1790 until his death in 1794. Though only in his 30s, Records indicate that he suffered a stroke while crossing a river en route to Mount Vernon to visit his family.
Paris, probably the youngest of the nine, was a stable hand. His stay in Philadelphia was brief because Washington did not like his “attitude.” He was returned to Mount Vernon.
One of two slaves to live in Philadelphia for Washington’s full term was Moll, Martha’s maid and a dower slave. She is documented as being at Mount Vernon in 1759 and she was present at Washington’s death in 1799.
Richmond was the son of Hercules and was added to the household at his father’s request.
During the Revolutionary War and after Washington’s body servant was Will Lee. In 1789 he returned to Mount Vernon and his place was taken by his nephew Christopher Sheels. Sheels would serve in this capacity until Washington’s death. He was at his bedside.
Ona “Oney” Judge and Hercules are the most well known of the nine. They both escaped and lived the remainder of their lives in freedom. The Washingtons viewed their escapes as betrayals of trust.
Ona was the daughter of Andrew, a white indentured servant, and Betty, an enslaved seamstress. Ona worked in the house and was a gifted seamstress. She was 15 when Martha made her a bodyservant and took her along to New York and then Philadelphia. Ona escaped, with the assistance of the free black community, at the end of Washington’s second term. She sailed from Philadelphia to Portsmouth. She was discovered in Portsmouth in 1796 and Washington prevailed upon a friend to capture and return her. The friend refused and told him to go through the courts. Because Washington continued to try to recapture her she, and her husband, moved to Greenland, New Hampshire. She was interviewed for the “Granite Freeman” in 1845.
Hercules, Washington’s chef, was such an artful cook that he was able to supplement his income with his skill. He was easily recognizable in Philadelphia’s streets because of his fine clothing and gold-tipped cane. One of the earliest portraits of a black American is believed to be that of Hercules, painted by no less than Gilbert Stuart. He escaped at the end of Washington’s second term and was never heard of again.
John Adams occupied the house from March 1797 to June 1800. He and his wife Abigail were staunch abolitionists and owned no slaves. Their son, John Quincy Adams, would become the sixth president and would argue in front of the Supreme Court for the captives in the Amistad Case.
The 8,000 sq. ft. “President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” opened on December 6, 2010. The open-air, $11.2-million, complex consists of a series of 7 interpretive areas that delineate the footprint of the original house and inlaid bronze footprints lead visitors along Freedom’s Road, five video screens relate stories of the enslaved and etched in granite memorialize the names of the nine. A glass commemorative wall is inscribed with the names of tribes and places of origin representative of the millions of Africans taken from the continent whose stories are now being told as part of the larger tapestry that is the US. The President’s House is open 24/7 with no admission fee.
Next year our country begins a 4-year commemoration of the Civil War. Our country began here, the abolition movement was born here, promises of universal freedom were not realized here and the seeds of the Civil War were sown here. Experience it all in Philadelphia. Information is available on the listed websites.
www.phila.gov/presidentshouse and www.visitphilly.com/presidentshouse
I wish you smooth and unfettered travels!
TIP: Read personal narratives of African Americans in the White House.
“A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison” Paul Jennings
“My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House” Lillian Rogers Parks
(Also a 1979 miniseries)
“Behind the Scenes in the Lincoln White House” Elizabeth Keckley