The original White House was located in Philadelphia before the nation's capital moved to D.C. in 1800. The house is no longer standing, but a commemorate site was built on its former spot at Market and 5th Streets.
Known as the "President's House," the historic site aims to explore the conflicting history of freedom and slavery in early United States history. After years of debate about how to tackle such a large task, the "President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation," opened in late 2010.
The site is the heart of Philadelphia’s Independence National Historic Park. It sits just next to the Liberty Bell, across the street from the Independence Visitor Center, and within steps of the Constitution Center, Independence Hall, and the National Museum of Jewish American History. Extremely modest by modern standards, George Washington once called the three-story brick mansion that stood here “the best single house in the city.”
During the first 10 years of the United States functioning as a nation (1790-1800), our first two presidents, George Washington and John Adams, lived and worked in this house. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, were among the other famous dignitaries who spent time here.
Archeologists discovered over 10,000 artifacts that helped recreate the history and layout of the house, including the location of the slave quarters. While Adams did not have slaves during this time, George and Martha Washington did. They brought at least nine slaves with them from their Mount Vernon estate, including a cook and Martha Washington’s personal servant.
While some slave owners in the northern states chose to emancipate their slaves much earlier as the consciousness around the immorality of the practice shifted, George Washington did not free his slaves until after his death, stipulated in his will.
Many of the same men who fought for American independence and democracy owned slaves. They lamented their own oppression under British rule without acknowledging that they were oppressors. They demanded freedom from England while taking freedom from those they enslaved. They drew up the Declaration of Independence based on the premise that “all men are created equal,” when they were not living by this principle.
The site was a joint venture of the National Park Service and the City of Philadelphia that cost $11.2 million to create and took many years to plan with several delays along the way. An oversight committee debated the details of the site s in the hopes that it would evoke critical thought with regard to the practice of slavery in early America while honoring those enslaved here along with the early presidents.
The 8,000-square-foot open-air installation consists of a brick foundation designed to represent the original house. Among the attempts to honor the enslaved are bronze footprints meant to symbolize the road to freedom, a wall displaying their names, and motion-activated video screens that the tell stories of their lives. There is a memorial space for reflection.
A display panel reads: “It is difficult to understand how men who spoke so passionately of liberty and freedom were unable to see the contradiction, the injustice, the immorality of their actions. We cannot ignore the past; we can only honor the memory and lives of those who endured bondage in a land where freedom rings for some, not all.” Controversy remains around whether or not the site achieves its objectives in the best possible way. At minimum, the site brings to the surface an oft-ignored aspect of the story of the forming of our nation.