Thus Spake Zuska

How did you celebrate George Washington’s birthday this year? You didn’t do anything? Well, it’s not too late. Pour yourself a nice hot cup of coffee or tea, and sit down to read a pair of fascinating articles published this past Sunday and Monday in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Hercules: Master of cuisine, slave of Washington

A birthday shock from Washington’s chef

If you don’t already know – and why would you, this stuff isn’t in our history books – Hercules was a great chef, and one of nine slaves Washington kept at the first White House in Philadelphia. The history of slavery in the first White House has recently been the subject of intense study with an archeological dig at the site undertaken in 2007. The dig showed that the former slave quarters were located just steps away from where the Liberty Bell sits today.

But wait, you might ask. I am a savvy historian. How did Washington manage to keep slaves in the Philadelphia White House in spite of Pennsylvania’s Gradual Abolition Law? Good question, my friends. Here’s how:

Pennsylvania’s government was the first in the Western Hemisphere to take steps to abolish slavery. In 1780, it enacted the Gradual Abolition Law — prohibiting further importation of slaves into the state. But the law also respected the property rights of Pennsylvania slaveholders by freeing only the future children of enslaved mothers. Children born or living in the state before March 1, 1780, remained enslaved for life (or until 1847, when legal slavery finally ended in Pennsylvania). The 1780 law was lax regarding non-resident slave-holders living in Pennsylvania on a temporary basis. It provided a mechanism for these enslaved to legally obtain their freedom, provided they established a 6-month residency in Pennsylvania. To prevent this, non-resident slaveholders simply interrupted the residency by taking their slaves out of the state before the 6-month deadline. A 1788 amendment prohibited this rotation of slaves in and out of Pennsylvania. But Washington knowingly violated this amendment to the Gradual Abolition Law. He maintained that his presence in Philadelphia was a consequence of its being the national capital, that he remained a citizen of Virginia, and he was careful that neither he nor his slaves spent the six continuous months in Pennsylvania necessary to establish legal residency. Nine enslaved Africans worked in the President’s House: Oney Judge, Austin, Moll, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, Hercules, Richmond, and Joe (Richardson). [Bold emphasis mine. Biosketches here.]

That is certainly a story they never told me about ol’ George when I was in grade school! No sir, they just kept bringing out that cherry tree business.

It’s not like Washington didn’t do umpteen million great things for which he will forever be remembered – he did. But why can’t we have the full story, the whole story, the story with all the warts and flaws, the one that makes him a human being, complex and full of interest? The one that makes him seem real?

And, not at all incidentally, the one that gives us the history of Hercules?

People can talk till they are blue in the face about the irrelevance of MSM, but it is my newspaper that brought Hercules’s story to me. It is true that archeologists and historians and archivists and art historians were needed to uncover and piece together this story, but it is my newspaper that put it out there for a wider reading public.

Read what they have offered up. Read about Hercules’s ability, his life in Philadelphia, his banishment to Mt. Vernon and sentence to hard labor, his escape under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

The advantage I had reading it in newsprint instead of on the web is that I didn’t have to be subjected to the web comments from slavery-’splainers, but if you mostly ignore the comments on the articles you should be okay.

Check out the photo of the Mt. Vernon kitchen here, and then imagine that the kitchen at the first White House would have been similar. Now, imagine yourself being in charge of producing the following, for the president’s feasts and entertaining, in a kitchen like that.

During the week of May 19 [1794], for instance, the kitchen prepared 293 pounds of beef, 111 pounds of veal, 54 pounds of mutton, 129 pounds of lamb, 16 pounds of pork, calves’ feet (for sweet colonial Jell-O), 44 chickens, 22 pigeons, 2 ducks, 10 lobsters, 98 pounds of butter, 32 dozen eggs, myriad fruits and vegetables, 3 half-barrels of beer, 20 bottles of porter, 9 bottles of “cyder,” 2 bottles of Sauternes, 22 bottles of Madeira, 4 bottles of claret, 10 bottles of Champagne, and 1 twenty-eight-pound cheese.

Working in an 18th-century kitchen was backbreaking, with heavy iron pots swinging on cranes, whole animals turning on spit jacks, and tin reflector ovens beside the roasting-hot fires. Even the basic tasks, such as purifying sugar from large loaves, were a lengthy chore.

But the meat – regularly more than a quarter-ton each week, give or take a pig – was an astounding amount for a staff of roughly seven to butcher, boil, roast, or fry into “fricaseys,” “ragoos,” pastry-wrapped “coffin crust” pies, and scallopini-like “collops” rolled “olive-style” around forcemeat.

It was no small thing to be a chef under such circumstances, and the degree of technical skill required was surely astonishing. I’ll pick up on that idea in my next post. For the time being I think I’ll just end with one last quote from the Inquirer article:

“[Hercules's story] helps people understand . . . freedom for whites was often built on the backs of enslaved people,” says Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Slavery is liberty’s evil twin brother. We think of them as polar opposites, and yet they’re joined at the hip.”

Comments

  1. #1 volcanista
    February 23, 2010

    This is such a great article and important story, and thanks for reporting on it. (In other news, I live near you and now fangirlishly want to hang out!)

  2. #2 Stephanie Z
    February 23, 2010

    But why can’t we have the full story, the whole story, the story with all the warts and flaws, the one that makes him a human being, complex and full of interest? The one that makes him seem real?

    This. The other as well, but this.

  3. #3 et
    February 23, 2010

    Just as we rich westerners now are joined at the hip to poor people who produce the goods we love so dearly.

    Are we morally any better just because we can’t see those who work for us and the destruction our habits cause is conveniently both out of sight & out of mind?

  4. #4 Moopheus
    February 23, 2010

    “It provided a mechanism for these enslaved to legally obtain their freedom, provided they established a 6-month residency in Pennsylvania. To prevent this, non-resident slaveholders simply interrupted the residency by taking their slaves out of the state before the 6-month deadline.”

    This is still the rule for temps.

    “It’s not like Washington didn’t do umpteen million great things for which he will forever be remembered – he did. But why can’t we have the full story, the whole story, the story with all the warts and flaws, the one that makes him a human being, complex and full of interest?”

    People have this idea that the folks we hold up as heroes and role models have to somehow better than the rest of us. That if they have flaws, weaknesses, are a mess of contradictions, etc, that takes away from their accomplishments. Great things can only be accomplished by Great Men, pure paladins of the soul. Personally, I reject that–I find it more inspirational to think that these guys were just like the rest of us, and managed to do the great things in spite of it. I’m normally a cynical misanthrope, and believe that we are all hopelessly corrupt, but that thought is one of the few things that give me a little hope for the world.

  5. #5 Joseph Steinberg
    February 24, 2010

    It cuts both ways. Can we blame Hercules’ culinary creations for smoothing the compromises that resulted in some questionable policy and legislation at those soirees and dinners? The man should have just upended a pepper mill in the sauce.

    Amid Washington’s theatrical talent for his own image, though, it’s clear he was just cheap. And, his diet, gawd! Anyone who has visited Williamsburg, Virginia can testify to how horrible 18th Century food could be.

  6. #6 Lab Rat
    February 24, 2010

    Sorry – English ignorance here, but what the hell is the “Cherry Tree story”. Googling for it just brings up a nauseatingly stupid kids morality tale.

    Actually further googling along with your title suggests this might actually *be* the story you mean! But seriously, building up a public figure as a hero is one thing, building up a public figure as a hero by using a rather pointless childhood incident which had at best two witnesses (one of them the guy himself) is kindof insane…

    It’s certainly not ‘history’ by any stretch of the imagination.

  7. #7 mad the swine
    February 24, 2010

    “[Hercules's story] helps people understand . . . freedom for whites was often built on the backs of enslaved people,” says Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Slavery is liberty’s evil twin brother. We think of them as polar opposites, and yet they’re joined at the hip.”

    Absolutely. Athens, the birthplace of democracy? It was because the Athenians controlled and exploited the labor of a subject population (and, for a brief period, the wealth of an empire) that they had the leisure to argue politics and get self-righteous about the rights of their citizens. Every ‘free’ people in history (and I include the modern United States in this) has been ‘free’ only by virtue of exploiting some other people instead of each other. Washington relied on the labor of Hercules and his fellow slaves. We rely on the labor of Chinese and Indian children for our goods, the names of whom we don’t care to know. Millions of Africans die in civil and colonial wars so the raw materials for those goods remain available. Can we really say that America is more moral now than then?

  8. #8 Chris
    February 24, 2010

    @Lab Rat: Yes, that’s the story, and no, it’s not history. It first appears in a highly moralistic “history” quite a while after Washington’s death, IIRC. However, it’s still one of those stories every USAmerican has heard, so I suppose that makes it part of our folklore, along with Mickey Mouse and Whack-a-Mole…

  9. #9 FrauTech
    February 24, 2010

    Thanks Zuska, really enjoyed the reads and agree with your statements about getting to know our “heroes” completely: flaws and all.

  10. #10 Paul S.
    February 24, 2010

    This is a fascinating story. I’m inclined to agree with Moopheus that historical “heroes” are best approached as human beings with strengths and weaknesses who were able to achieve great things in spite of their weaknesses. I tend to think that this view is both more accurate and more accessible to most people.

    Joseph Steinberg – from what I’ve read, Washington was both a shrewd businessman and a penny pincher who was always eager to find ways to maximize revenue and minimize expenses. This meant that he was an astute businessman who wasn’t in chronic debt like many other Virginia planters of the time. It also meant that he made even heavier demands on his slaves than the average plantation owner of his time.

  11. #11 katydid13
    February 25, 2010

    @Lab Rat Unfortunately, the first thing that many US children learn about George Washington is that he was the father of our country who had wooden teeth and couldn’t tell a lie. (no wooden teeth either) Start to suggest that’s not true and lots of people react like you have just reject the US and everything it stands for.

    I really don’t understand why there are such a fairly large number of people who can’t deal with the fact that our heroes are people who are less than perfect.

    I like to view the founding fathers as “great plan, lousy execution.” They were really outstanding political philosophers. The Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution are inspired. However, we are still trying to live into that whole equality thing.

  12. #12 skeptifem
    February 25, 2010

    What the hell is so brilliant about equality for white male property owners? What about madison’s whole ‘government is there to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority’ thing? What they had to say was radical for that time period, but it was still a shit deal for the vast majority of the population and doesn’t merit so much admiration.

    The idea of our nation as inherently good or well meaning goes hand in hand with the making of impossible heros out of our politicians. It is hard to accept our country as automatically a source of good while honestly portraying people who are making the important decisions. I looked up the cirriculum for this kind of thing in the school district here; one of the goals was to discuss america’s influence on the world. Then it said something like “spreading democracy, ending injustice, etc”. Most groups are not in the habit of undermining themselves so I think things will continue on this way for a good chunk of time.

  13. #13 Lab Rat
    February 25, 2010

    “discuss america’s influence on the world. Then it said something like “spreading democracy, ending injustice, etc”.”

    They seriously teach kids that? That’s not just wrong, it’s dangerous. How can people grow up with a hold on reality with such a skewed version of the world? Surely it’s better for moral wellbeing as well as historical accuracy to present a more realistic view of how countries interact?

    For example when they taught us the second world war, they didn’t just cover the blitz and D-day (although that was most of what we covered which was a shame). We also did the Battle of Stalingrad (which was pretty much the turning point of the war and therefore considerably more important) and the bombing of Dresden, just so everyone got an idea that it wasn’t just about the Brits going all dads army on people, it was about people suffering in *every* country, and a full-World-War. We even had a short lesson covering the Pacific, although I don’t remember too much of it.

    It must be hard though, to cover slavery and the American civil war after teaching kids about the whole ‘democracy and justice’ thing. I mean that’s *got* to raise awkward questions…

    [Zuska - sorry if I derailed the thread!]

  14. #14 Windol
    February 25, 2010

    Greetings, this is a test of tor. I’m trying to work out what’s up. then I’ll get back.

  15. #15 Windol
    February 25, 2010

    Oh, it works now, I guess Zuska worked it out, or the scienceblogs admins changed something. Well that’s good…

    I’m reading Te Voyage of the Beagle now, and Darwin comments a few times about slavery. He also seems to manage perfectly well without using any… Washington could have just as well freed this guy then hired him.

  16. #16 Isabel
    February 27, 2010

    “Darwin comments a few times about slavery. He also seems to manage perfectly well without using any.”

    HaHaHa that’s a good one. Of course, his servants weren’t exactly slaves. However their lives certainly were devoted to his family’s benefit, to the detriment of their own no doubt.

    He also admitted allegiance to the class system, because it allowed people such as himself to live lives of the mind without having to worry about all that pesky daily life business.

  17. #17 PlaydoPlato
    February 27, 2010

    It’s not like Washington didn’t do umpteen million great things for which he will forever be remembered – he did. But why can’t we have the full story, the whole story, the story with all the warts and flaws, the one that makes him a human being, complex and full of interest? The one that makes him seem real?

    Herein lies the problem with historical revisionism… what I call the Disneyfication of American history.

    Washington, Jefferson, etc. always bored me to tears when I was in school. And I never believed that cherry tree BS for a minute.

    I realize now that my previous distaste for history was because, like Disney, it was too perfect, too artificial. That’s why I love Howard Zinn’s work. He made history come to life for me.

    Not long ago I toured Washington’s home in Virginia. There were some black people in the group and so I noticed that the tour guide took extra effort, right at the beginning, to white-wash Washington’s slave-holding past.

    In my opinion, it wasn’t necessary. The only people who believe that Washington was perfect are those delusional folks on the right.

    The rest of us understand that he was flawed, like all men, but that didn’t stop him from achieving great things. His flaws make him a more compelling character, IMO.

  18. #18 Tsu Dho Nimh
    February 27, 2010

    @6 … The “Cherry Tree” story has been attributed to Parson Weems, who wrote saccharinely uplifting tales for young children.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parson_Weems

    Almost anyone whose family history in the USA runs back into colonial or early Republic times can find both slaves and slave-holders in the family tree, sometimes founding the family fortunes.

  19. #19 PlaydoPlato
    February 27, 2010

    From the Philly Inquirer:

    Ultimately, he [Washington] would be the only Founding Father to free his slaves, an act he added to his will in the last year of his life… It was a decision born both of Washington’s evolving moral battle with the paradox of human bondage after the War for Independence and of the increasing failure of his plantation as a viable slave business. His slaves, however, were not to be free until the president and his wife were dead.

    LOL. This is what the tour guide made such a big deal out of when I toured Mt. Vernon some years back. Really, it would have been a big deal if Washington had freed his slaves before he died. Doing so afterwards, just highglights his hypocrisy.

    Slaves to Washington: “George, UR doin’ it rong.”

  20. #20 Monado
    February 28, 2010

    Washington apparently became rich on his expense accounts as a military commander, charging more than $449,000 in 1780 dollars over 8 years. A major-general made $166 per month, a captain $20, a private $6.67. Washington? $4680 …per month. For his expenses, not an army’s.

  21. #21 skeptifem
    March 22, 2010

    Labrat- the standards I am talking about are for younger children, they don’t get too many specifics at that stage. Years are spent instilling vague feel good notions about America into the youth, so that when they do learn the specifics it is easier to rationalize our actions.