So, just forget the fact that I “had” to go to The President’s House and Liberty Bell Center for my Public History Class. If you pretend that I went purely under my own volition, this will be easier on all of us. Or don’t, and you might understand why I feel the way I do about this historic landmark.
The President’s House sheltered the first two U.S. Presidents (that would be George Washington, and John Adams for those of you keeping score) from 1790 to 1800. It was not built exclusively for their use, but was built by Mary Lawrence Masters in or around 1761, bestowed upon her daughter Polly and Polly’s new husband William Penn in 1772. Benedict Arnold occupied the residence for about a year during the Revolution, probably from June 1778 to March 1779. In January of 1780 the house caught fire and sustained some serious damage. The land and buildings that survived, were purchased by Robert Morris (founding father, unfortunate land speculator, debtor extraordinaire) in 1781. He rebuilt and modified the structure. After reoccupying the house, he hosted one George Washington (General, eventual President, plantation owner) quite often. With Washington D.C. under construction, Philadelphia served as temporary capital. That meant housing the President, his family, his assistants, his servants and his slaves. John Adams owned no slaves. Just putting that in there.
I’ll spare you the suspense: the house has not survived. Parts of the foundation exist, an Icehouse and an underground passage (most likely the main conveyance for slaves) were uncovered in an archeological dig, and subsequently reburied for their own protection. The house was not reconstructed. Instead, a skeletal frame was erected, following the outlines of the original house. There are windows, but few walls and no ceiling. There are empty fireplaces topped by television monitors.
Sadly, the picture doesn’t show the monitors, but trust me. they are there. From each screen flows a story about African American enslavement, replayed in striking melodrama. Along the sides, you can just make out the plexi posters that remind viewers this was in fact, the Executive House. Presidential “things” occurred here. Though, they do tend to focus on things like the Fugitive Slave Act (ensuring the rights of slave owners to retrieve their property across state lines, and regardless of whether or not said slave had made it to “free” lands) and Washington’s obsessive (yet fruitless) drive to recapture his own runaway, Oney Judge.
Along the base of the short walls are speakers that stream audio fragments of the videos (or perhaps separate audio, it was hard to tell). The volume on the screens are set high, ostensibly to counteract Philadelphia traffic sounds. Further back in the display, as one nears the Liberty Bell Center, is a monument commemorating the enslaved who resided at The President’s House. Built over the slave quarters, and resembling a tall animal pen, the box fills with sound as you enter. Yet another reiteration of the television screens. It is loud. It is jarring.
I honestly question the need for sound in such a space, where inspiration quotes cover the walls in a variety of fonts and sizes. I most assuredly question the need to replay sound we’ve already heard. Why not record the reflections of visitors to TPH and play those in the memorial? This serves two purposes. One, it allows site managers to evaluate the site, its mission and its success. Two, it allows visitors to engage with history, to critically consider their reactions and to record them. History includes not just what happened, but our reactions as well. This is a missed opportunity.
We were only two days out from a major snowstorm the day I visited TPH. As a result, a number of the in-wall speakers were muffled and two of the monitors were malfunctioning. Additionally, mounds of snow, piled against the walls, hindered viewing the executive branch’s story. No ceiling will do that for you.
My initial response was disbelief. This exhibit cost approximately twelve million dollars to plan, design and build. The original intent was to finally represent the executive branch of government in Philadelphia. That intent is largely gone, subsumed by a different goal, illuminating the great contradiction of an American Liberty that coexisted with American Slavery (Yes, I sort of stole that from Edmund Morgan). I struggle to articulate just what TPH does.
Does it represent the absolute reality of what transpired within its walls?
Does it remind us, as though we’ve forgotten, that slavery was a human atrocity?
Does it heal the wounds of hundreds of years of bonded enslavement, followed by a few hundred years of economic and social inequality?
Yes. And no. And maybe?
Perhaps it is enough for now that The President’s House reminds us that liberty did not come cheaply, or easily… and that the stroke of an executive’s pen can not, and does not eliminate inequality.
Go. Go to The President’s House, then go to the Liberty Bell Center. Compare the two stories you find there.
Be thoughtful. Be critical. Learn.