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A Flawed Father

15 Feb

As a lover of American history, I think one of the most extraordinary early moments in our nation was the first peaceful transfer of power — when President George Washington handed over the reins to his successor, John Adams.

But as a Philadelphian, I’m also keenly aware of Washington’s flaws. I say “as a Philadelphian,” because of course our city was the first capital city of the young United States, and Washington lived here in what we now refer to as the President’s House.

Washington owned enslaved people. More to the point, at the time, Pennsylvania had a law that if an enslaved person lived here for more than 6 months, he or she would become free.

Portrait of George Washington's Cook [Hercules]

Portrait of George Washington’s Cook Hercules, reputedly by artist Gilbert Stuart. Copyright © Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Used by permission.

So President George Washington, father of our country, purposely sent the human beings he owned out of Pennsylvania every six months, so that none of them could ever become free.

Just think about the cruelty of that for a moment. Imagine being an enslaved person living in Philadelphia. You would likely have socialized with people in the city’s lively free black community. At a minimum, you would have had some level of interaction with them. You would have gleaned that after six months in Philadelphia, you too would have the opportunity to become free.

And then — cruelty of cruelties — as the time approached that you would have gained your freedom, you would have been exiled back to Washington’s Mt. Vernon plantation in Virginia. Or perhaps just taken across the river to New Jersey for a day or two. Either exercise would have accomplished the same malevolent goal: Resetting the countdown clock to freedom.

This isn’t an imaginary exercise. It actually happened to real people. One of them was a man known as Hercules, a respected chef who gained unusual prominence for an enslaved person. (Among other things, he had his portrait pointed, reputedly by the famous artist Gilbert Stuart. See illustration at right.)

Even while Hercules enjoyed remarkable prestige, he was still legally treated as property. And thus it is probably not surprising that, on George Washington’s 65 birthday, Hercules escaped. Not only did he escape, but he was never recaptured, as this story recounts.

Today, there is an embryonic effort underway to try to get the above painting of Hercules brought back to the US from Spain, where it currently hangs in a museum. One blogger proposes that it should be swapped with an unrelated (but meaningful to Spain) painting from the White House in Washington DC.

While I think it would be quite fitting for Hercules’s portrait to hang in one of our most revered national landmarks, I can’t help but think about another landmark much closer to home. The Liberty Bell is located just steps away from the grounds of the old President’s House in Philadelphia.

Either way, on this Presidents’ Day, spare a moment to remember this extraordinary person. Regardless of where Hercules finished out his life — it doesn’t seem to have been Philadelphia — he did so on his own terms: In freedom.