How did a national shrine to the origins of the Executive Branch morph into racial propaganda? Therein lies a story.
The National Park Service considers The Presidents' House memorial in Philadelphia to be a significant new project. It will sit between the Liberty Bell Pavilion and The Independence Visitor Center. Millions of impressionable visitors are expected. Congress and the Supreme Court are represented nearby at Independence Hall, but the house where Washington lived as president was knocked down years ago. That and the Executive Branch of government, which it represented, were marked with a public toilet.
How did this transformation from toilet to memorial happen? In 2000, an icehouse was uncovered during excavations for the Liberty Bell Pavilion. It had been built in 1781 for resident/owner Robert Morris and used by the Washington and Adams households. A few modern individuals asked the Park to reconsider its lack of an exhibit honoring the Executive Branch.
In January 2002, a monograph about the house was printed in the quarterly magazine of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. In March, WHYY Radio interviewed UCLA historian Gary Nash, who said Washington had slaves in Philadelphia. This was followed by a March 24 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer entitled "Echoes of Slavery at Liberty Bell Site." Then state resolution PA No.490 was passed, mandating that everyone who lived in the house must be remembered, especially the slaves. After all, it was argued, if Washington had not had a good breakfast, the nation might have fallen apart.
A dubious internet petition was launched in March 2002, by a local ACLU attorney who had sided with Mumia Abu-Jamal. This petition coincided with the formation of two competing grievance groups. On July 4, 2002, they held a joint demonstration at the Liberty Bell. Five hundred individuals arrived at Independence Mall with such signs as "Liberty Bell, Liberty Hell." Among the various statements made, one organizer declared the house "a crime scene." Demonstrators were instructed not to talk to outsiders.
In 2003, a few academics organized the Ad Hoc Historians. Spokesman Randall Miller said they had fashioned themselves according to the model of ad hoc citizen groups from the Revolutionary period. Those 18th-century groups were known for harassing individuals with the epithet "Tory" and chasing them from the state to seize their property. The modern effort is characterized by cries of "racist," and revolutionary resident Robert Morris, Financier of the Revolution, has been chased from the story of his own house. His absence means that citizens will not learn about the beginnings of American capitalism.
The National Park Service held several public meetings. These were characterized as boisterous, but as a witness to the events, I can say that what was really going on was the suppression of opposing opinion by racial intimidation. These meetings included calls to lynch one of the speakers, more cries of racism, and screams of rape. If it had not been so tense, it would have been interesting as theatre.
The final result of the meetings and of the National Park Service was this set of interpretive themes:
- The house and the people who lived and worked there
- The Executive Branch of the U.S. Government
- The system and methods of slavery
- African-American Philadelphia and the move to freedom
- History lost and found
Theme 1 Many interesting people, other than Washington and his slaves, lived there. However, there is little more than an incomplete list of former residents, but the designers did manage to use the small space at hand to imply that Washington was criminal in his behavior. Theme 2 Our Executive Branch was unique at the time of the founding, and people should understand it better. The designers took this opportunity to offer gratuitous implications that America is a racist country. There is no information about the formation of the office of the presidency. Instead, there is just a list of some of the challenges without useful context. It is presented without explaining the Federalist thinking of Washington or Adams. There is only commentary based on the perspective of the opposite political party, Jefferson's. Theme 3 It would be informative to describe the whole system of slavery and the lives of people enslaved in Washington's house. Disgracefully, there is no mention of the non-whites who owned slaves. Visitors will leave with the erroneous idea that slavery, which was an economic system, is synonymous with racism, which is a mental disease. Also, there is no mention of the fact that Muslim African rulers ran the slave trade, sold their fellow Africans into bondage, and did so for over nine hundred years. It is also omitted that the American slave trade was the result of British Royal Trade policy implemented before the Revolution, and that once Philadelphians controlled the port, the slave trade stopped there, forever. There will be an in-depth exploration of how the slaves lived, focused on the horrors of slavery in general (only in the U.S., of course) in an effort to blame white people for all the problems of blacks. However, in the last meeting, one citizen was vocal in her insistence that there should be more exploration of rape and brutality. While that undoubtedly went on, as it does today in the Congo, it was not part of the Washington household. Theme 4 is where these great minds went off the rails. There was no self-identified "African-American Philadelphia" during the eighteenth century, and "African-American Philadelphia" (whatever that is) did not collectively live in the house. It is well established practice not to superimpose modern views on historical events, but this is exactly what is going on here. The Philadelphia section is garbled and confusing, because otherwise it would have been necessary to talk about racial harmony. The move to Freedom should be the explanation about how white and black people worked and sacrificed to bring about the end of slavery. This is not to be found. There is no mention of the white clergy ordaining the first black clergy. There is scant mention of the repeated efforts of the Quakers, and no mention of their work in the Underground Railroad. The memorial is silent on the sacrifices made during the Civil War by so many Americans of all kinds. Theme 5 serves only to provide an opportunity for the interested to promote themselves. This is probably the most successful part of the memorial, but it is obvious that the Founding Fathers take a backseat to modern-day contractors, activists, and public-sector employees.
The physical manifestation features half-height and disconnected walls, a stair to nowhere, and pits surrounded by glass. All of this creates a fractured view of a time when harmony was the true goal. The architectural design is antithetical to the Georgian/Federal period, and so it will destroy any feeling people may seek to understand how it might have been to live there.
The proposed art for the walls is hideous. What else can one say beyond that it is reminiscent of the human shadows left on walls from the atomic blast at Hiroshima?
The videos promise to be mostly made-up history with invented dialogue, or "evocative of the times," as they say.
The memorial is ugly, misleading, and highly political -- in other words, a perfect metaphor for the forces at work in its creation. So come one come all, come on down to Slavery Mall.
Turning the site of the Executive Branch memorial into a site about slavery is like turning Martin Luther King's house into a site about plagiarism, except slavery was legal during Washington's time. Let us not forget that there will be a new multimillion-dollar African American History museum on the National Mall in D.C., and it's my guess that the topic of slavery will be covered there as well. Unfortunately, the story of how the American Executive Branch came into existence will remain hidden from view.
Patriotism is love of country. The kind of love I see in this memorial reminds me of a man who said he loved his wife, all right -- he just had to slap her around once in a while to keep her in line. It comes as no surprise that one of the project leaders wrote an article entitled "Black Eye on the White House."