Liberty and Equality for All? Philadelphia’s Controversial New Exhibit Opens

Call it a contradiction, call it hypocrisy, call it blasphemy, but there’s no getting around the inconvenient truth that the United States, a country founded on the principle of equal rights for all,  did not begin to provide equal rights for all people at its founding. While even the most casual students of American history are aware that many of the Founding Fathers were also slave holders, it’s not something that our major historic monuments tend to dwell on in great detail — it’s such a patriotic buzz kill. *

But on December 15th, 2010  The President’s House,  in Philadelphia will open, steps away from The Liberty Bell.  It doesn’t duck the issue of slave-holding among the founders — it squarely addresses it, while commemorating the lives of the people who lived in bondage while their owners labored to create a “free” nation.

I got a peek at it last week, behind a chain link fence protecting the construction site.

What you see here is the site of the house where President George Washington and President John Adams lived and worked, from 1790 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the temporary capital of the United States.  After the capital moved to Washington D.C., the house became a hotel, and then divided into retail shops.

No one recognized the structure’s historical significance, and in 1951, its last remaining walls were demolished. It then became the site of a public restroom. It wasn’t until 1973 that the site was identified for what it was, and not until 2007 that an archaeological dig revealed the partial foundation and other artifacts.  Controversy accompanied the project at every turn.

The open-air exhibit that finally opens on December 15th focuses on the enslaved Africans that lived in Washington’s house. (John Adams had no slaves.)  By the time Washington arrived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania had passed a “Gradual Abolition Act”, which freed the children of female slaves and prohibited the separation of enslaved families, among other provisions. In order to ensure that his slaves did not receive these protections, Washington moved his slaves out of state every six months, so they would not acquire Pennsylvania residency.

While living in the house, Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which made it legal to capture and return escaped slaves if they reached a free state, and also, in practice meant that many African Americans who were never slaves were captured in free states and sold into slavery. Washington also went to great lengths to recapture slaves that escaped, including Oney Judge, also known as Ona Judge — who lived in, and escaped from, the President’s House.

The President’s House site tells Oney’s story and others, through video monitors, glassed-in views of the archaeological site, and honors the names of the enslaved that lived with the nation’s first president.

Read the Philadelphia Inquirer’s excellent package on the evolution of The President’s House here. Plan your visit to The President’s House here, and details on the archaeological excavation.

* Mount Vernon is a good example of how historic sites have grappled with the contradiction of slave-holding founding fathers. George Washington’s historic estate does not at all hide the fact the first president was a slave holder. But it seems to me that efforts to put this troubling fact into context tend to obscure the reality that men who were willing to make revolution against King and Country certainly could have made other choices about the human beings that they owned.

For instance Mount Vernon’s website says that slave holding was common among men in Washington’s position, and that he was increasingly troubled by it as his life went on:

“Washington could — and did — lead by example. In his will, he arranged for all of the slaves he owned to be freed after the death of his wife, Martha.”

Which is better than nothing, I suppose. Although the history revealed at the President’s House makes me doubt that in this area, Washington was much of a leader at all.

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