Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Touring Philadelphia

Over the next year or two I am slated to do at least three walking tours of colonial and revolutionary Philadelphia.  I have taken students and friends to Philadelphia for years and think I have developed two pretty good tours.  One is a standard tour of the main sites related to the Revolution and Constitution. The other is a tour of pre-1815 Philadelphia churches.  (If you have a group that might be interested in taking one of these tours let me know).

I thus enjoyed reading about Michael Lynch's recent visit to the City of Brotherly Love.  His tour was limited by the government sequester, but he still managed to take in a few sites, including "The President's House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation."

Here is a taste of his tour recap:

One other feature at INHP was new to me, because when I first visited the park it hadn’t been built yet. It’s an outdoor exhibition called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” which opened in 2010 on the site of the house occupied by the President of the United States from 1790 to 1800.  A sort of semi-reconstruction of the home’s facade marks the spot.
It’s an interesting case study in the intersection of memory, politics, and public history, and for that reason it’s worth examining in some detail.

Excavations at the site, which revealed remnants of the presidential residence’s work areas, generated public calls for recognition of the slaves who lived and worked there.  As of the time of my visit, the exhibit tells both the story of George Washington’s slaves and the story of the presidency’s beginnings…sort of.

There are some panels with information about important events in the history of the presidency (the Jay Treaty, the Alien and Sedition Acts, etc.), but it seemed to me that slavery was the main story here.  Video screens run short films on Washington’s servants, and toward the rear of the structure you can look through a transparent floor at some of the house’s original foundations.

Washington’s time in Philadelphia definitely exposed the uglier side of his career as a planter.  By a 1780 state law, non-residents could only keep their slaves in Pennsylvania for up to six months; after that, slaves of nonresidents living in the state were free.  The law provided an exemption for members of Congress, but not for the president or federal judges. Washington managed to get around the prohibition by moving slaves in and out of Pennsylvania so that none of them were in the state for more than six months at a stretch, even though a 1788 amendment to the original law closed this loophole by prohibiting that very practice.

Read the rest here.  And if you are planning a visit to Philadelphia I highly recommend George Boudreau's Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia.