The Magazine

Washington Slept Here?

What happens when propaganda replaces history.

Mar 7, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 24 • By RYAN L. COLE
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Of course, not all interested parties believed that the monument’s potential downfall was the lack of emphasis on slavery. Rob Morris, a descendant of the man who lent the house to Washington, accused planners of trying to “confuse George Washington with Bull Connor. .  .  . They are fanning race hatred. This is not about my ancestor, but about teaching people to hate each other for things they can do nothing about.”

Amid these competing interests, and after many delays, Philadelphia and the Park Service finally cut the ribbon on the monument in December. The final cost was $11.2 million. And in the end, which vision triumphed?

Although not exclusively about slavery, Philadelphia’s “President’s House” has little to do with the presidency. Instead of a full reproduction of the structure—as would have been done in, say, Colonial Williamsburg—the finished product is a mishmash that partially reconstructs pieces of the walls, complete with unframed windows to alternatively give visitors the impression of a partially completed house or an abstract piece of contemporary art sitting uncomfortably in the shadow of Independence Hall.

Inside the open space are video presentations and interpretive panels focusing generally on slavery during the founding of the nation, and particularly on the lives of Washington’s slaves. When the narrative strays from this particular subject it remains fixated on race and class.

Philadelphia and the Park Service were correct to underline the tension between the Founders’ vision of liberty and the broken promise of slavery. But the exclusivity of their approach neglects much of the home’s rich history, and almost entirely crowds out its other occupants. Missing completely are the stories of Penn, the colonial lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania; Howe, who set up office here when the British occupied Philadelphia during 1777-78; Arnold, who hatched his treasonous plot within these very walls; and Morris, whose own wealth clothed and fed Washington’s army during the darkest days of the Revolution. And little is mentioned of Adams, who opposed slavery, or his wife, Abigail, who was a vocal abolitionist.

All of this might have made for a three-dimensional recounting of the story of the President’s House. Instead, visitors are left with a myopic interpretation of an important fragment of American history. George Washington, who in keeping slaves in Philadelphia flouted Pennsylvania law, is seen not as the father of his country but a law-breaking bondsman. The subtle but essential point that he was a man of his times who wrestled with the hypocrisy of slavery is nowhere to be seen. 

Additionally, the interpretation of the house is arguably incongruent with Congress’s original mandate, which does not mention the creation of a slavery monument. 

“If Congress had intended the National Park Service to create a National Slavery Memorial, I think they would have explicitly said so,” says Lawler, who, during the public debate, argued that the final product should be a presidential site with a strong slavery component. Instead, the site is a slavery memorial with a minute presidential component. Rosalyn McPherson, who managed the project for the city and Independence National Historical Park, defends the focus: “There was not much space to convey a story, but many demands,” she said. “Everything gets honorable mention, but you can’t go in depth in a site like this.”

Of course, there are many stories here. And the focus on slavery, and the insistence on superimposing current views on centuries-old history, squander a rare opportunity to chronicle the creation of the executive branch and the lives of a host of figures central to the beginnings of the United States of America.

Ryan L. Cole is a writer in Indianapolis.

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