The President's House - Washington and Adams
President's House site (image from Visit Philly)
Interpretive signage (image from Historic Marker Database)
President's House archaeological excavation (image from the City of Philadelphia)
1830 Lithograph by William L. Breton depicting the President's House (image from the Annals of Philadelphia by John Fanning Watson)
Backstory and Context
History of the President's House
The home which would become the residence of Presidents Washington and Adams was built in 1767 for Mary Lawrence Masters, widow of William Masters. As one of the wealthiest families in Pennsylvania, the house was among the largest in the Philadelphia area. The widow and her two daughters lived there together until 1772, when the elder daughter, Polly, married lieutenant governor Richard Penn (grandson of William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania). Mrs. Masters made the new couple a wedding present of the house, where Richard Penn entertained delegates of the First Continental Congress, including George Washington, during the ensuing three years. Penn was asked by Congress to personally present to King George III of England the "Olive Branch Petition" in 1775. Penn and his wife traveled to London to deliver this list of grievances to the king, and spent the entirety of the Revolutionary War in England [2; 4].
Meanwhile, the Masters-Penn house became General Sir William Howe's headquarters when British forces occupied Philadelphia in September of 1777 after defeating Washington's Army at Brandywine Creek and Germantown. Howe was recalled to London and his troops, on June 18, 1778, were ordered to evacuate Philadelphia to join forces in New York City. The house's next occupant was Continental Military Governor and Major-General Benedict Arnold, who despite his small salary enjoyed the lifestyle of a wealthy man. He met and married Peggy Shippen, spent recklessly, and purchased a large suburban villa, Mount Pleasant. Suspicion about the source of his wealth and distaste for his unpleasant behavior led to his being forced to resign his post in March of 1779. In fact, Arnold had been acting as an informant for the British, corresponding with them from the Masters-Penn house. After Arnold's departure from Philadelphia, French Consul John Holker lived in the house, but on January 2, 1780, it was severely damaged in a fire. Robert Morris, the "Financier of the Revolution," rebuilt the house in 1781, using the original plan and adding more property, an ice house, a bath house, and a second story to the kitchen area. This brought the house to a count of six or more bedrooms and four servants' rooms. George Washington regularly stayed with the Morrises while visiting Philadelphia after the Revolution, and during the Constitutional Convention (May-September 1787) he lodged in their home [2; 4].
Washington became the first President of the United States in 1789, living in New York City for his first 16 months of office. In July of the following year came the Congressional decision that Philadelphia would serve as the temporary capital of the nation while Washington, D.C., the Federal City, was constructed. Philadelphians hoped the capital would remain in their city, beginning construction on a Presidential mansion at 9th Street. Meanwhile, Washington himself secretly worked toward the permanent capital being moved to Virginia. Obviously, neither the Philadelphians nor Washington succeeded [2; 4]
In November of 1790, Washington took up his friend Robert Morris' offer of his own house as the President's residence, though he insisted on paying rent (possibly to help alleviate Morris' debt—see Washington Square). With a household of approximately 30 people, Washington found the three-story house insufficient for his needs. Additions included a slave quarters between the kitchen and stables, a servant's hall along the kitchen and servant's quarters in the smokehouse and attic, the conversion of the second story of the bath house into Washington's private office, the expansion of the south side of the main house, and expansion of the stables. Washington, his wife Martha, and Martha's grandchildren Nelly and G.W. Parke Custis shared the house with Washington's personal staff, consisting of four male secretaries, including Chief Secretary Tobias Lear, and Lear's wife [2; 4]. Fifteen white servants and nine enslaved Africans brought from Washington's Mount Vernon estate were housed separately from one another, segregated by color [2; 3; 4].
The President's House became the seat of the Executive Branch of the Federal Government, with the public office (equivalent of the West Wing of the White House) located in a room on the third floor. Public audiences or "levees" were held by President Washington every Tuesday afternoon at the bow window of the south room on the first floor, and State dinners were served every Thursday. Martha Washington hosted drawing room receptions every Friday evening and open houses on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. Smaller dinners and even breakfasts were held at other times to conduct business. Washington's private office in the former bathing room served as the equivalent of the Oval Office and Cabinet Room. He was forced to flee the capital city during the Yellow Fever epidemic of 1793, staying in nearby Germantown until it was safe to return to Philadelphia. The city's Yellow Fever outbreaks of the 1790s were part of the reason that the relocation of the capital to the District of Colombia were carried out as planned, as many believed the water or climate of Philadelphia was unhealthy . The Bill of Rights, as ten Constitutional amendments, were signed into law in Washington's office, as well as a national banking system, a policy of American neutrality in European politics, and, unfortunately, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793 .
Washington himself purposely circumnavigated Pennsylvania's
anti-slavery laws—the first to be passed in the entire Western Hemisphere,
since prior to the Revolution all thirteen colonies had permitted slavery. In
1780, the Gradual Abolition Law had been passed in Pennsylvania, which prohibited
importation of slaves to the state and freed all future children of enslaved
mothers, as well as any slave moved into the area after the law was passed who
could establish a six-month residency in Pennsylvania. Non-resident
slave-owners, including Washington, rotated slaves in and out of the state
within the six-month time period to avoid their slaves legally obtaining
freedom. Even after a 1788 amendment prohibited such rotations, Washington maintained
that he had the right to own slaves as a citizen of Virginia, and took care not
to spend six months at a time in Pennsylvania himself. With public sentiment in
abolitionist, Quaker Philadelphia against him (and with several escape attempts
and one successful escape on the part of his slaves at the capital), Washington
eventually replaced his slaves in the city with indentured German servants,
though he still owned over a hundred slaves in Virginia (freed at his death in
his will), as well as around 200 "dower" slaves Martha owned through
her first husband's estate (who remained enslaved and were divided among her
grandchildren after she died) [1; 2; 3].
The African slaves who worked in the President's House include Moll, nursemaid first of Martha's children at Mount Vernon and then of her two grandchildren in Philadelphia; Joe Richardson ("Postillion Joe"), who, along with his wife and family, was freed at Washington's death in 1799; Giles, a driver, postilion, and stable hand who was injured during an accident and returned to Mount Vernon in 1791; Paris, a young stable hand who returned to Mount Vernon the same year as Giles, though for "unsatisfactory behavior" (both he and Giles died within the decade); the literate Christopher Sheels, who succeeded his uncle as Washington's personal attendant after the Revolution, and who unsuccessfully attempted escape in 1799; Ona Judge, a seamstress and personal maid to Martha Washington who escaped to New Hampshire in 1796; Austin, Ona's half-brother, a postilion and stable hand who died December 20, 1794 from falling off a horse, and who was survived by a wife and five children; Hercules, Washington's celebrated cook, who escaped in 1797; and Richmond, Hercules' son (11 years old in 1790), who was a "dower slave" by association with his mother, worked as a kitchen scullion, and returned to Mount Vernon a year later. When Ona escaped, she settled in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and married a freedman sailor named Jack Staines. A friend of Nelly Custis (Martha Washington's granddaughter) ran into Ona by chance, and reported the incident back to the Washington household. The President contacted the customs collector in Portsmouth and requested that Ona be returned to him. After speaking with Ona, the customs collector refused Washington's request, so two years later Washington sent Burwell Bassett, Jr., his nephew and secretary, after Ona and her new child. While Bassett dined with New Hampshire Governor John Landon, he explained his purpose, and Landon warned Ona in time for her to escape with her child. She remained free until her death in 1848, having survived her husband and all three of their children [3; 6].
Meanwhile, John Adams was elected the second President of the United States, and, declining to live in the Presidential mansion at 9th Street, moved into the President's House with his wife Abigail in March of 1797. John and Abigail Adams had never owned, nor would ever own, slaves. His (and Abigail's) deep opposition to slavery was not the only difference between Adams and Washington. Adams was also more frugal and reserved, often underspending his allotment for political functions and entertaining expenses [1; 4]. During Adams' occupancy, the largest function at the President's House was the "drawing room" held by Abigail Adams on December 26, 1799, following George Washington's death on December 14, which was attended by approximately two hundred mourners [2; 4]. While Adams was President, the 11th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, the United States Navy was formed, the Mississippi Territory was established, and the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 was passed. Aside from criticism over the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams also faced the problem of deep division and partisanship between the Republican and Federalist Parties (Adams himself was a Federalist), as well as the diplomatic crisis of the "XYZ Affair" which almost led the United States into war with France [4; 8].
Toward the end of his term, Adams was to move to the new District of Colombia White House. In preparation, he and Abigail departed Philadelphia in May to spend several months at their Massachusetts farm. The President's House in Philadelphia became Francis's Union Hotel, which Abigail visited on her way back through Philadelphia later in the year on her way to the new capital city. On November 1, 1800, John Adams became the first President to occupy the White House; the next Tuesday, he lost the election to Thomas Jefferson .
Back in Philadelphia, Francis's Union Hotel failed, as did the boarding house which followed it, and by 1832 the President's House had been stripped to its east and west walls and foundations and converted into three narrow storefronts. These stores were demolished in 1935, exposing the original side walls of the President's House, but went unrecognized and were destroyed by 1951, when the block was razed to construct Independence Mall; three years later, a public bathroom was constructed within the house footprint, damaging the subsurface foundations [2; 4]. The bathroom was removed in 2003, while the footprint of the original outbuildings were being partially obliterated by the construction of the Liberty Bell Center between 2002 and 2003. In March of 2002, public outcry began when it was reported that only five feet from the Liberty Bell Center's main entrance was the site of Washington's enslaved stable workers' quarters. The Pennsylvania State Legislature, Philadelphia City Council, and U. S. House of Representatives called upon the National Park Service to commemorate the site and its residents, particularly the African American slaves. After several years of fundraising, a design competition was held, which was won by Kelly-Maiello, Inc. of Philadelphia in February of 2007. Archaeological excavations began in March, revealing the foundations of the main house, kitchen, and an underground tunnel connecting the two, as well as Washington's bow window and the ice house, prompting revisions to the design to incorporate the archaeological finds, and the open-air commemoration, President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation, was built in 2009 .
Text from Interpretive Signs:
The President's House - Washington and Adams Marker
Presidents Washington and Adams lived and worked in
a house on this site from 1790 to 1800. Here they established traditions and
protocols that our presidents follow to this day.
The Washington Years
moved into the President's House in November 1790, calling the elegant
three-story brick mansion the "best single house in the city." He
remained in residence until March 1797. Washington assembled a household that
consisted of about thirty people, including members of his own family, his
personal staff and their families, some fifteen white servants, and at least
nine enslaved Africans. Washington conducted the business of the Executive
Branch from a small, second-floor office. During the time Washington served as
the new nation's chief executive, and while he was living in the fine house in
Philadelphia, the first ten amendments which make up the Bill of Rights were
added to the Constitution; he also approved a national banking system to keep
the country financially stable and proclaimed a policy of American neutrality
in European affairs.
The issue of slavery plagued Washington throughout his years in Philadelphia. By the time that Washington arrived here, he had privately begun to express doubts about that institution, but he also expressed frustration with those who worked openly against slavery. Despite his misgivings about slavery, while living in the President's House, Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. This notorious law mandated the return of enslaved persons to their owners and made it a crime to aid in the escape of the enslaved.
Washington also took pains to ensure that those he enslaved could not secure their freedom under the terms of Pennsylvania's Gradual Abolition Law of 1780. Washington was unsure if the law applied to him, but if it did, it would have allowed enslaved Africans he brought into the state to secure their freedom after six months residence in Pennsylvania. In order to keep this from happening, Washington secretly made arrangements for the slaves he brought to Philadelphia to be rotated out of the state before the six-month deadline arrived. Even a brief trip across state lines would restart the clock on the waiting period.
Washington eventually did decide to free his slaves. However, under the terms of his will, this belated freedom only came after both he and his wife died, and then only for some. Martha's dower slaves, who legally belonged to her family's estate, were not freed.
Upon his election to the presidency in March 1797, John Adams and his wife Abigail moved into the President's House. Adams, who never owned slaves, was a man of frugal habits and simple tastes. The President's House was a very different place during the years he lived there. In contrast to the relative pomp and splendor during Washington's administration, during the Adams presidency the house was a much more sedate place. President Adams ran his household along simple lines and he regularly under spent the funds allotted for state functions and entertaining. Large functions, such as those held on the Fourth of July, or the event Mrs. Adams hosted in December 1799 to mourn George Washington's passing, were relatively rare occurrences.
During his presidency, Adams led a deeply divided and increasingly partisan country. Tension and conflict grew as the new Republican Party openly challenged the Federalists, the established party to which Adams was allied. Foreign affairs brought turmoil, as well. Adams wrestled with the "XYZ Affair," a diplomatic crisis that very nearly plunged the new nation into war with France. Domestically, Adams' administration saw the ratification of the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, the creation of a national Navy, and the establishment of the Mississippi Territory, but also was roundly criticized for signing into law the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Adams left the President's House in May 1800, and moved into the White House in Washington, D.C .
The President's House Site 1790-1800
President George Washington called the elegant three-story
brick mansion that once stood on this spot "the best single house in
the city." Both Presidents Washington (1790-1797) and John Adams
(1797-1800) lived and worked in this house, which was rented from financier
Robert Morris. Washington's large household included enslaved African
descendants, contrasted with Adams' small household. Adams never owned slaves.
The President's house in the 1790s was a mirror of the young republic, reflecting both the ideals and contradictions of the new nation. The house stood in the shadow of Independence Hall, where the words "All men are created equal" and We the People were adopted, but they did not apply to all who lived in the new United States of America.
Independence National Historical Park is working with the community to interpret the President's House Site and to commemorate the enslaved African descendants who lived and toiled there. A permanent exhibit will be created on this open site near the entrance to the Liberty Bell Center.
Left of Diagram
Records show that Washington and his family slept over the kitchen. His servants including the enslaved African descendants, slept in the former smokehouse and throughout the property. Adams left on record of how he used the house.
Hercules, Washington's enslaved cook, presided in the kitchen and was considered one of the best chefs in America. In 1797 Hercules successfully seized his freedom. With the help of Philadelphia's large free African community, Oney Judge, Martha Washington's enslaved servant, escaped to freedom from here.
Bottom Portraits: George Washington Attributed to Ellen Sharples, after James Sharples
John Adams by Charles Willson Peale, from life.
Hercules Attributed to Gilbert Stuart. Presumed to be George Washington's cook .
Enslaved Africans in the Household of George and Martha Washington
At various times during Washington's stay in Philadelphia,
nine enslaved Africans were known to have lived and worked here at the
President's House. They were dynamic participants in the daily life of the
presidential household and the surrounding city. Painstaking research by modern
scholars provides us with a glimpse into the lives of these people. The brief
biographies that follow help us better understand their lives. They also serve
to represent the thousands of free and enslaved people of African descent who
lived and toiled here in Philadelphia and who helped build a new nation.
Austin, half brother of Ona Judge. He died on December 20, 1794, after a fall from a horse while returning to Mt. Vernon, leaving a wife and five children.
Christopher Sheets attempted to escape from Mt. Vernon in 1799, but was unsuccessful. His fate after Martha Washington's death in 1802 is unknown.
Giles was a driver, postillion, and stable hand. He returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791, after being injured in an accident during Washington's tour of the southern states. He died before 1799.
Hercules served for many years as cook both at Mt. Vernon and in Philadelphia. He seized his freedom just before the family retired to Mt. Vernon. He was celebrated for his mastery of his craft and for setting exacting standards for kitchen workers. Even though Hercules fled from bondage in 1797, he was legally freed in Washington's will.
Joe (Richardson) is mentioned in 1795 as "Postillion Joe," although his time in Philadelphia is uncertain. He was married to a woman freed (along with their children) after Washington's death, whereupon the family took the name Richardson.
Moll was nursemaid to Martha Washington's two grandchildren. She also served as nursemaid to Martha's children, from her first marriage and later at Mt. Vernon.
Ona/Oney Judge was, like her mother, a talented seamstress. She became Martha Washington's personal maid as a teenager. In 1796, Ona seized her freedom and escaped to New Hampshire, where she lived until her death in 1848. In New Hampshire, she married a free Black sailor named Jack Staines and had three children, who all died before her.
Paris was a young stable hand. He was returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791 for "unsatisfactory behavior" and died in 1794.
Richmond came to Philadelphia at the age of 11 with his father, Hercules. He worked in the kitchen briefly but returned to Mt. Vernon in 1791. His later fate is unknown.
After Ona escaped from Philadelphia, Washington tried relentlessly to recapture her. He discovered where she had gone when a friend of Martha Washington's granddaughter happened to encounter Ona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Washington wrote to the Collector of Customs in Portsmouth and requested that he apprehend Ona and send her back. After speaking with Ona, the New Hampshire official declined to do so. Two years later, Washington asked his secretary and nephew, Burwell Bassett, Jr., to seize Ona and her child, born since her escape. Bassett confided his intentions to John Langdon, the Governor of New Hampshire and Langdon sent a warning to Ona. She escaped, yet again and fled with her child. Near the end of her life, when Ona was old and had outlived all of her family, people who spoke with her were impressed by her dignity, her faith in God, and her abiding love of freedom .
Archaeology Methods and Interpretation
How do we learn about the lives of those who came before us? Old documents such as letters, diaries, and land deeds tell us about particular people, places and events. Yet written records do not always survive and most were produced by and for society's elite. The details of everyday life are rarely mentioned in historical documents. Ofter the poor and the enslaved appear as little more than figures in a ledger of numbers in a tax or census record. We must look beyond the written record to better understand the lives of people from all levels of society.
Surviving documents associated with the President's House tell us about important events that took place in the house and identify some of the people who lived, worked, or visited there. However, to learn more about these individuals, we needed more information. In studying the excavated artifacts left behind on this site, archaeologists hope to better understand the lives of all who lived and labored here.
Clues to Our Past
A sewing needle falls through a gap in the floorboards...a child's toy is lost and forgotten in the yard...a broken dish is tossed down an abandoned well...
People leave behind physical traces of their daily lives wherever they live, work, and play. Archeologists examine the places once inhabited by people and recover these long-forgotten clues to our past. Though the excavation and analysis of these recovered artifacts, we can learn about the food people ate, the clothes they wore, and ways they entertained themselves, the diseases they suffered from, and even their beliefs and cultural traditions.
Archaeology at the President's House Site
The President's House was demolished in 1832. Other buildings constructed on this site since then destroyed much of the physical evidence of the President's House. That is why the archaeologists conducting the dig at this site were so excited by a series of completely unexpected discoveries. For example, below the kitchen where Hercules - an enslaved African - presided as George Washington's chef, they found a basement that written records did not mention. They uncovered part of the foundation was from the bow window that is believed to be the prototype for the Oval Office in the White House. They also found an underground service passage from the kitchen to the main house that both the enslaved and wage earners would have used. Deeper portions of three wells and one privy (outhouse) also escaped destruction, and contained most of the thousands of artifacts discovered at the site. Debris of daily life, including broken dishes, bottles, animal bones, and clay pipes, offer archaeologists important clues to the past.
The team of archaeologists that brought to light these authentic reminders of the nation's complicated beginnings hosted an event for the closing of the site. The ceremony included songs, prayers, and the pouring of libations by a Yoruba priestess to honor the enslaved Africans. Nine brass plaques donated by the Philadelphia Fire Department and inscribed with the names of the enslaved were buried at the site to be recovered when the site is reopened in preparation for the permanent commemoration.
Preserving Our Past for the Future
The fragile archaeological ruins recently discovered at the President's House Site were temporarily reburied to help preserve them. The dirt covering protects the centuries-old foundation walls from the weather. The design team is working on a solution that incorporates the significant archaeological discoveries into the permanent commemoration.
During the archaeological excavation, more than 300,000 visitors came to the public viewing platform to witness this extraordinary place. Their reaction has served as a signal that the President's House Site has the potential to become a new international icon.
Want to Learn More?Artifacts recently unearthed from the President's House Site are at the Independence Living History Center for analysis. The working archaeology lab is located just a few blocks away at 3rd and Chestnut Streets and is open Monday through Friday, 9am to 5pm (weekend hours vary). Admission is free .