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.
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 , 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.”