President’s House – a redress of grievances

The other day, I stood where George Washington slept.

And where Hercules cooked.

I stood where an extraordinary man proved to a skeptical world that a people could be led by something other than a monarch.

And where the same great man did a despicable thing. He held another, talented man in bondage, stealing his labor and his dignity, calling him slave.

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I stood in a whipping wind on this sacred and stained place, and felt the raw contradictions of history vibrate in my bones.

After much shouting and effort, the President’s House display formally opened last Wednesday on Independence Mall.   It is not a reconstruction of the house where Presidents Washington and Adams lived.

It is a skeletal suggestion of the house, as partial, maddening and moving as the version of liberty that these Founding Fathers managed to create. It is a place where greatness and great evil sit side by side, having a conversation. Steps from the Liberty Bell, you gaze into the subterranean remains of the quarters where slaves held by a great icon of liberty once toiled.

Buried history, visible at last.

As a panel at the site says, history is complicated and messy. That is why it is never a dead letter, why it constantly births new lessons.

Some visitors may be stunned by the installation’s focus on slavery, unaware of the rowdy but useful dialogue (mostly a Philadelphia thing) that led up to that choice.  

In fact, taken in isolation, the President’s House is a very imbalanced presentation. Huge pieces of our nation’s early history that have ties to the house get short shrift, compared to the stories of Hercules and his fellow slaves.

But if history teaches anything, it’s the danger of viewing one place, one person, one event in isolation. America’s textbooks and shrines have long and culpably undertold the role of blacks, both slave and free, in the nation’s founding. In light of that, the President’s House is the merest first step to redress.

I’ll be honest. I walked to the President’s House that wintry morning skeptical and prepared to dislike how it turned out. I’ve been put off by some of the extreme rhetoric of those who advocated the slavery focus.

But I have to say: It works. It feels right. It feels like justice, like welcome revelation.

It’s a new reason to be proud that you live in our diverse and boisterous City of Brotherly Love.

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