Memory and Truth: Excavating “Liberty” at the President’s House

An archeologist discusses the President’s House site with visitors.
An archeologist discusses the President’s House site with visitors.

NPS photo

On March 21, 2007 a groundbreaking ceremony was held at the President’s House site between the corner of 6th and Market (formerly High) Street in Philadelphia. Attendees were Mayor Street and other city officials, National Park Service staff including archeologists, reporters, and individuals of the public both young and old. After the first bucketful was lifted and laid aside, visitors surged forward to touch and take pictures with the muddy soil—to the astonishment of the archeologists. Why this passionate response
when the sample contained only 20th century construction debris?

Over the next four months of excavation at the President’s House site, archeologists got their answer. The site’s power lay not in the foundation walls, bits of broken bottles and ceramic dishes, or deep wells they discovered. Rather it was the power of the space itself, the memories embedded in it, and the cry of stories needing and demanding to be told that drew in thousands of visitors to the site each day.

These narratives illustrate the “historical hypocrisy” of freedom and enslavement that the President’s House site embodies (Jeppson, Roberts, Brauer, and Levin in Mooney et al., 98). The now-demolished first home at 190 High Street was built in 1767 by Mary Lawrence Masters, widow of William Masters—the former mayor of Philadelphia and the city’s largest slave holder. Later occupants included their daughter and son-in-law William Penn (grandson of Pennsylvania’s founder), Generals William Howe and Benedict Arnold, and Robert Morris (a signer of the Declaration of Independence). However, the High Street property’s most famous residents were Presidents George Washington and John Adams, who lived there with their families and servants (free and enslaved in Washington’s case, free only in Adams’s) from 1790-1797 and 1797-1800 respectively.
Screening artifacts
Archeologists screen excavated soil to reveal artifacts.

NPS photo

The President’s House site is located steps from Independence Hall where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were signed. One corner is covered by the Liberty Bell Center, containing the famous bell with the inscription “proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” Yet at least nine of the President’s House occupants, enslaved persons legally owned by George and Martha Washington, were not free. Indeed, Washington himself wrote how he ensured they remained so. To bypass Pennsylvania’s law concerning automatic freedom for any individual residing six months or more within the state limits, Washington repeatedly sent his enslaved workers back and forth between the temporary capital and his home at Mount Vernon in Virginia, as well as into New Jersey at least once. However, both Ona Judge and the cook Hercules would eventually escape from the Washingtons into a new life of if not total then at least expanded liberty.
Archeological excavations uncovered and explored the spaces where Ona Judge, Hercules, the seven other enslaved individuals, the staff of indentured and wage-earning servants, and the Washingtons themselves worked and slept every day. Because the site is in the middle of downtown Philadelphia, it contains many layers of urban debris. As they excavated deeper in the ground, archeologists moved back in time to finally reach the 18th-century foundations and surfaces they sought. Four significant finds were discovered: the stone foundation walls of the original President’s house, the bow window (a large extension with curved walls installed by Washington that was the inspiration for the oval rooms within the modern White House), the kitchen/washhouse root cellar, and an underground passageway between the kitchen and the main house. The latter two areas were especially important in telling all of the stories of the President’s House. These areas were not documented in historical records and it was within them that free and indentured servants and enslaved individuals performed the everyday tasks that allowed the President’s households to function. Yet these confined, “invisible” spaces further confined and hid these people (and by extension the institution of slavery) from the eyes of Washington’s guests. The kitchen itself was a mere seven feet from the formal bow window room, yet the “immeasurable distance between freedom and slavery” divided them (LaRoche 2007 as cited in Mooney et. al, 101).
Excavated pipe fragments and saucer with dragon motif.
Excavated pipe fragments (left) and saucer with dragon motif (right).

NPS photo

These and other site areas yielded thousands of artifacts that also helped reveal what life was like for the 18th-century High Street occupants and those who came after them. Some artifacts, such as an enigmatical wine bottle base seemingly left purposefully in the ground, a small porcelain plate, and a saucer painted with a dragon motif may have been used by someone in the Washington or Adams households. Many others dated from 19th-century businesses and construction projects conducted long after the Washingtons and Adamses left High Street—including thousands of pipe fragments from the George Zorn and Company store established on the property in 1885/6. However, these artifacts help tell the site’s story just as much as their earlier counterparts. They explain how Washington’s household with its many voices and paradox of “liberty” were forgotten and literally buried over time, only to be revealed through community efforts and archeologists’ trowels centuries later.

Source: Jeppson, Douglas Mooney et al. The Archeology of Freedom and Slavery: Excavations at the President’s House Site in Philadelphia. Prepared for the National Park Service and City of Philadelphia. URS Corporation, National Park Service, and Independence National Historical Park, 2009.


Video: Excavating a Well at the President’s House.

Lawler, Edward, Jr. “The President’s House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126 (January):5-96. 2002.

Oney Judge’s Escape to Freedom. National Park Service.

The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation. City of Philadelphia.

President's House Site: Uncovering the Past through Archeology. National Park Service.

Independence National Historical Park

Last updated: March 6, 2023