Mr. Bloomberg, Tear down the Brooklyn Bridge!

In Philadelphia yesterday, I saw the foundations of the house which Robert Morris lent to the fledgling executive office and which was occupied by George Washington and John Adams. When the foundations were first unearthed, I ridiculed the contentions of activists of a historical coverup, as the place was torn down in 1832 to become a store and no one -- then or now -- has ever denied that George Washington owned slaves. The first reports were fairly tame, and only hinted at a coverup:

A day or two after that find, another stone foundation was discovered - remnants of an underground passageway from the kitchen basement to the main house's basement. The passage allowed slaves and servants to move back and forth unseen.

The passageway had also been unknown.

I had a lot of fun speculating about hidden passageways:
I immediately wondered whether there might be similar passages at the White House itself -- where the today's servants of another powerful man whose first name is "George" are also able to "move back and forth unseen." Will future historians ever be able to know?

The first President's House was torn down in 1832 (ostensibly to erect commercial buildings) but that's now being seen as a coverup of historic proportions. Now that archaeologists have unearthed the truth, there is no longer any way to conceal the slavery -- the contrast between the powerful and the powerless!

I might have had too much fun with my satire, because what appears to be little more than a basement hallway (used by persons unknown between 1767 and 1832) morphed from a "hidden passageway" to an underground tunnel from hell!

What amazes me if the unquestioning acceptance which is being given to the shrill claims of biased activists, as in this ubiquitous AP report:

PHILADELPHIA -- Archaeologists unearthing the buried remains of George Washington's presidential home have discovered a hidden passageway and other ruins, still intact, used by his nine slaves.

The findings have created a quandary for National Park Service and city officials planning an exhibit on the site, which is steps from the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall. The officials are now trying to decide whether to incorporate the remains -- which powerfully show freedom and slavery side by side -- into the exhibit or go forward with plans to fill in the ruins and build an abstract display detailing life in the house.

Whatever decision is made, a dramatic story waits to be told, said Michael Coard, a Philadelphia attorney who leads a group that worked to have slavery recognized at the site.

"As you enter the heaven of liberty, you literally have to cross the hell of slavery," Coard said. "That's the contrast, that's the contradiction, that's the hypocrisy. But that's also the truth."

Washington and John Adams each lived at the mansion, a block from Independence Hall, when Philadelphia was the nation's capital between 1790 and 1800.

Archaeologists have uncovered an underground passageway where slaves slipped in and out of the main house, so they wouldn't be seen by Washington's guests. They found remnants of a bow window, an architectural precursor to the White House's Oval Office. Other discoveries include a large basement that was never noted in historic records.

Googling "Philadelphia slavery" brings up hundreds of news hits to stories with headlines like "Slave passage found at Washington house," "Founding father's passageway for slaves discovered," and "Washington's slaves used tunnel."

Googling "George Washington" and "underground passageway" yields over 11,000 Google hits, almost all to stories which recite the "discovery" uncritically.

Only a few writers -- Rick Moran being a notable exception -- have raised questions about perspective.

For starters, the house in Philadelphia was not owned by George Washington, but was lent to him by philanthropic revolutionary financier Robert Morris. As to who built the "secret slave tunnel" or why, anyone familiar with colonial architecture (or even later Victorian architecture) knows that homes built for people affluent enough to afford household servants usually had separate entrances, separate quarters, and separate stairways. That was so servants could come and go as inconspicuously as possible, and it was not dependent on the servants' status. Whether slaves or free, servants were expected to be in the background. Condescending by modern standards, but I'd hardly call it a coverup. While in Milwaukee, Wisconsin I stayed at a bed and breakfast which had been a huge Victorian mansion. Sure enough, there was the usual grand formal staircase in the entry area -- and a tiny servants' staircase in the rear. Wisconsin was not a slave state, but I suppose if the same house had been older and located south of the Mason-Dixon line, it would be reasonable to conclude that the tiny staircase might very well have been used by slaves.

To call what appears to be a basement hallway a "slave passage" motivated by a coverup is, IMO, and exercise in political hyperbole dressed up as scholarship. First of all, no one is asserts that Washington built the "tunnel." Did he? Or was it part of the original Morris design? And how on earth could anyone possibly know that it was only for the use of Washington's nine slaves? How do we know that George and Martha didn't use it themselves for reasons unknown? And what might John Adams have done with it? True, he didn't have slaves, but does that mean that he had no household servants, and that if he did he might not want them coming and going through the same entrances and using the same staircases as visiting dignitaries?

I think this is puffed up nonsense.

What I'd like to know is why only Philadelphia, and why this one president? There is no historical dispute that slaves worked in and were kept in the White House under a number of presidents. It's considered fourth grade history:

When George Washington was president (1789-1797) he lived in New York and Philadelphia. He brought cooks, maids and coachmen from Mount Vernon -- all of them slaves -- to work at his house alongside white servants. The presidents in the early days were expected to hire and pay for their own staff. Since many of the early presidents were southern planters, they brought their slaves to work for them in Washington, D.C. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) brought slaves from Monticello, and during his presidency the second child ever born in the President's House was born to his slaves, Fanny and Eddy. Paul Jennings was the personal servant of President James Madison (1809-1817). He was a slave who wrote down his memories of living in the Madison White House. You can read them by clicking here. Tennesseans Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) and James K. Polk (1845-1849) also brought slaves from their farms, and almost always they lived in basement rooms. Enslaved craftsmen helped build the White House. Black servants helped save documents and art when the British burned the structure in 1814. Most of all, African Americans made the president's household operate efficiently. But it was a man who never held others as property, Abraham Lincoln, who would make sure that slaves would never work in the White House again.
Yes, but what about the coverup? Didn't White House slaves use separate entrances and passageways? And what about those underground basement rooms?

Why aren't we hearing more about the full nature of the true White House horrors?


And why aren't we hearing about the coverup of Washington's household activities in New York, where he lived in not one, but two presidential executive residences?

In February of 1790, the executive mansion was moved from the Osgood house at 3 Cherry Street to the Macomb house at 39 Broadway. A much larger dwelling, the Macomb house provided two drawing rooms and a number of additional spaces that required furnishing. Accordingly, the furniture already procured by Congress for the Cherry Street residence was moved to the new household and was supplemented by that ordered from local cabinetmakers. Washington privately purchased for the residence a number of items from the Comte de Moustier, including a suite of French seating furniture, some examples of which are in the Mount Vernon collection. The French furniture was placed in the larger and more formal of the two drawing rooms, while the smaller drawing room contained the government-owned pieces brought from Cherry Street. Despite the larger dwelling and the addition of French furniture, one visitor to this residence confirmed that the interior appointments remained in keeping with other American elites. William Hazlitt recalled: "The drawing-room in which I sat, was lofty and spacious, but the furniture was not beyond that found in dwellings of opulent Americans in general, and might be called plain for its situation."

In 1790, the seat of government moved from New York to Philadelphia, and the Washingtons relocated again. Most of the furnishings used in New York, and all of the mahogany furniture, was transferred to the new executive residence at 190 High Street in Philadelphia.

It's the former 190 High Street (now Market Street) location that's stirring the present controversy.

Let's start with the site of the nation's first vast historical coverup. Few Americans know it, but the first executive residence was located on Cherry Street! And in what may be one of the most sinister coverups of all time, it's now home to the Brooklyn Bridge! (No, really; here's a piece which appeared in the New York Sun, titled "A Piece of History Stands Hidden on Brooklyn Bridge"

On an otherwise nondescript anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, a small brass plaque pays tribute to another era. As cars and trucks whiz by, observant passersby may notice the tarnished marker placed on the bridge more than a century ago to commemorate the site of George Washington's first presidential mansion.

They would have to look for it under years of grime and overlook the garbage strewn nearby, a fact that has upset a group of local residents who recently renewed their campaign to have the plaque moved. They say the location is too remote and that steelwork added to reinforce the bridge in 1998 has further obscured the historic landmark. "It's a pretty historical spot, but nobody knows it," the district manager of Community Board 1, Paul Goldstein, said. "This thing is basically not visible to the public."

The site in question is located at the intersection of Pearl and Dover streets near an entrance to the FDR Drive. The plaque is little more than a foot wide and half as tall. It is affixed to an anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge, where historical documents indicate the presidential mansion once stood at 1 Cherry St.

Although that portion of Cherry Street no longer remains and the area bears little resemblance to the "uptown" neighborhood once populated by Revolutionary statesmen, the mansion was rented by Congress for Washington's use, according to New-York Historical Society papers. He lived there between April 1789 and February 1790, before moving to 39 Broadway. Later occupants included Samuel Osgood, DeWitt Clinton, a bank, and a piano shop.

The white colonial building was razed in 1856 to make way for wider streets, and the subsequent construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened in 1883.

Obviously part of an ongoing historical coverup. I'd be willing to bet that the plethora of Brooklyn Bridge jokes find their origin in an early disinformation campaign spread by secret operatives wanting to hide the real crimes of George Washington from future historians.

After Washington left the Cherry Street house, he moved the executive residence to the Macomb Mansion, at 39 Broadway. This later became a hotel called the Mansion House.

BroadwayMansion.gif If you look at the picture of it, and see for yourself how large it was. There's no way the place could have operated without servants, and the fact is that slavery not only existed in New York independent of any of the household activities of George Washington, it thrived. At the time of the founding, there was more slavery in New York than in any other American city except Charleston South Carolina had a higher concentration:

...New York City once had the highest concentration of slave ownership among all American cities, except for Charleston, South Carolina. Much of early lower Manhattan, including the original Trinity Church was built using slave labor. The New York Historical Society presented a comprehensive review of New York City's involvement with slavery last year.

After the American Revolution, New York and New Jersey were alone among northern states in not abolishing slavery. Then-Governor Morris and John Jay attempted to insert a clause into the founding state constitution suggesting the eventual elimination of slavery, but were rebuffed. Almost a decade later, a political coalition including members of different parties, Gov. Clinton (owning eight slaves), Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay (owning five slaves), along with prominent abolitionists formed a group to urge state abolition of the institution of slavery in New York. The practice of slavery became gradually restricted in following years, but in 1788 the group pressed to have the deportation of New York slaves to southern states outlawed, as many slaveholders worried about continued limitations tried to unload their human inventory to southern plantation owners. The port of New York, however, remained open to slave-trading ships. In 1786 40% of all households within ten miles of New York were slave owners and more than two-thirds of Brooklyn households owned slaves.

As to modern slavery in New York mansions, that's probably considered irrelevant to this discussion, as we're talking about collective guilt over things that happened hundreds of years ago, not events of 2007.

Sigh.

The Brooklyn Bridge and Broadway Mansion coverups have been so complete and thorough that despite due diligence, I have been unable to determine how many slaves lived there, or whether they, too, were forced to use secret passageways.

But I suspect they were. New York always gets away with these kinds of things, leaving Philadelphia to get screwed at the taxpayers' expense.

I say, it's time to tear down the Brooklyn Bridge and see what they're hiding!

posted by Eric on 06.14.07 at 10:19 AM










Comments

It was quite common for wealthy slaveowners in America to design their homes in such a way that slaves could move about the property without being seen, but this was usually due to the fact that they were household servants, not that they were slaves. This was an imported European tradition. Great homes and palaces in Europe commonly incorporated a network of secret staircases and hallways in the architecture for servants to travel throughout the building without being seen by the homeowners or their guests. Some great palaces in Europe employed hundreds of servants, none of whom were black or slaves, and yet they were expected to move about the palace and do their work without being seen by anyone except other servants.

Chocolatier   ·  June 14, 2007 12:47 PM

It sounds very considerate to have a tunnel dug so that servants, slave, indentured or free could bring meals from the kitchen to the house without going through the rain and snow.

GeorgeH   ·  June 14, 2007 4:27 PM

Nine slaves? Is that all? Why, he wasn't even half trying!

Bleepless   ·  June 14, 2007 5:36 PM

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