Those who can, do. And those who can’t, or who are biased, criticize. This statement effectively summarizes Edward Rothstein’s December 14 and 28 attacks in the New York Times on the President’s House project, which had its grand opening on December 15. Officially called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation,” this project commemorates America’s first “White House” and memorializes the enslaved African descendants who toiled and labored in it. But Rothstein summarily dismisses the project as a meaningless “identity exhibition.”
Most Americans did not know that President George Washington enslaved 316 black men, women, and children in Mount Vernon, Virginia and that he transported nine of them to the President’s House, which was in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1800 and is at the site of the new Liberty Bell Center. But many Americans now know and even more will know, thanks to this project, which addresses not only slavery but also George Washington, John Adams, the budding executive branch, and developing domestic as well as foreign policy.
Slavery is prominent and conspicuous in this project because slavery permeated the President’s House from the very beginning. After being built in 1768 by the estate of major slaveholder and Philadelphia Mayor William Masters, it was occupied by the enslaving Masters family until 1773. From 1773 to 1775, blacks were enslaved there by Richard and Polly Penn. They were also enslaved there from 1777 to 1778 by British Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton. From 1778 to 1779, traitor Benedict Arnold enslaved them there, just as wealthy slave trader Robert Morris did after purchasing the house and then residing in it from 1781 to 1790 before leasing it to the federal government for use by newly arriving Washington. Finally, from 1790 to 1797, the President of the United States of America — George Washington himself — officially resided there and enslaved nine human beings there. President John Adams never enslaved anyone there (or anywhere else), but he also never publicly condemned or even criticized slavery either. And silence is complicity. But Rothstein conveniently ignores all of this or, even worse, he is embarrassingly ignorant of it.
His purported critique, or better stated, his hatchet job-type criticism, clearly proves that he is blinded by racial indifference and cultural insensitivity. Any reasonable person would interpret his two reviews as boiling down to him rhetorically, intolerantly, and implicitly asking nothing more than “What’s the big American deal about this small African American stuff?” In this, he misses the mark repeatedly. Let me count (just some of) the ways.
He claims that these “identity exhibitions” are a “cry now often heard…” of “Me! Me! Me!… as history is retold…” He calls this the telling of “my story, in my way…” These are curious statements for Rothstein to make. Throughout his entire professional career, he has never attacked the more than 500 years of Eurocentrically romanticized American history since 1492 by white men from the perspective of white men. Apparently, the white male “me” is totally acceptable to him — especially if it is the blond-haired, blue-eyed version as manifested in the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle, an “identity impulse” that Rothstein finds “illuminating.”
He belittles the project as something that “overturns the idea of history, making it subservient to the claims of contemporary identity politics.” But the President’s House is both history and the idea of history — assuming that history is about accuracy, assuming that it is about the truth. And it is accuracy as well as the truth that exist throughout this project. However, the same cannot be said about Rothstein. He was not accurate. He was not truthful. To put it bluntly, he was just plain wrong when he wrote about the project’s assertion of the existence of “slave quarters” at the site. There is no such assertion. He was also wrong when he wrote that “more than (only) 200 slaves were held” by Washington in Mount Vernon. In reality, there were more than 300, actually a total of 316 enslaved black men, women, and children. And he was wrong when he wrote that in Philadelphia in 1,790, Washington’s “slaves were part of a population of nearly 4,000 others…” and that there “were also more than 6,500 free blacks” in the city at the time. That’s a total of 10,500. But there weren’t even 10,500 blacks in the entire Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. In fact, Philadelphia’s combined black and white population was 28,000. Accordingly, if Rothstein is correct, then the city was 40 percent black. But, as even a cursory review of census records would have shown, Philadelphia’s total black population was 2,078 (i.e., 273 enslaved plus 1,805 free), which is only about seven and a quarter percent, not 40 percent. What would a math critic or a history critic say about this to Rothstein?
He contends that “opportunities to explore the tension of freedom versus slavery have been squandered.” But he fails to see the forest for the trees. The project is called “The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation” primarily because it specifically focuses on and exposes that very tension of freedom versus slavery. How then could he seriously refer to it as a “highly ineffectual mishmash?” One focused issue does not a “mishmash” make.
He alleges that the project “lacks both intellectual coherence and emotional power.” Lacks intellectual coherence? It relied on solid research vetted by respected scholars including — but certainly not limited to — preeminent historians and professors Dr. Spencer Crew of George Mason University and previously of the Smithsonian Institution and the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Dr. Gary Nash of UCLA, Dr. Randall Miller of St. Joseph’s University, and Dr. Charlene Mires of Rutgers University-Camden as well as preeminent historian and archaeologist Dr. Cheryl LaRoche of Georgetown University and the University of Maryland.
Lacks emotional power? It is the first slavery memorial on federal property in the history of this country! It specifically names, hence humanizes, the people enslaved — and not just enslaved, but enslaved at America’s first “White House” and enslaved by the President of the United States of America! It tells the story of the courageous and heroic escape of two of those enslaved human beings, namely Oney Judge and Hercules! It incorporates a glass vitrine to allow tourists to view the ruins of the 18th-century President’s House to actually look back in time and see the foundations upon which Washington and the enslaved nine stood in the 1790s!
He scornfully asks of the project, “What is learned? Not what makes this site special, but what makes it ordinary.” The answer is that the truth about American history is learned. The answer is that a cultural catharsis has been created, one that for the first time in American history will provoke discussion and debate and education where powerless slavery existed side by side with powerful freedom, where black bondage and white liberty weren’t just next door neighbors — they were housemates. The answer is that there is absolutely nothing ordinary about the first slavery memorial on federal property in the history of the United States.
He accuses me of having written an “angry but influential essay” promoting this project on my organization’s website (Avenging The Ancestors Coalition). While I hope my essay, titled “The ‘Black Eye’ on George Washington’s ‘White House,’” was influential, it most certainly was not angry. It is merely an expanded reprint of what I wrote at the request of the staid and scholarly Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, which published it in October 2005. And that renowned magazine is by no means an angry revolutionary publication.
The President’s House project from the start has pursued the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That’s exactly why it proudly and unapologetically “identifies” with the truth. While professionally critiquing is reasonable, amateurishly criticizing is unreasonable. And not even a critic can rationally dispute that. But based on his resume of close-minded reactionary reviews, I’m sure that Rothstein will find a way.
Michael Coard, Esquire, is a founding member of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), 215-552-8751, ATAC@avengingtheancestors.com, avengingtheancestors.com.