The President’s House: Freedom and Slavery in the Making of a New Nation
The Washington Years 1790-1797
Washington moved into the President's House in November 1790, calling the elegant, three-story brick mansion the "best single house in the city," and remained in residence until March 1797. Washington brought with him a household that consisted of about thirty people, including members of his own family, his personal
Explore the links below for more history
staff and their families, some fifteen white servants, and a total of nine enslaved Africans.
Washington conducted the business of the Executive Branch from a small, second-floor office. While president in Philadelphia, he signed into law the ten amendments to the Constitution that made up the Bill of Rights, approved a national banking system to keep the
country financially stable, and proclaimed a policy of neutrality regarding American involvement in European affairs.
The issue of slavery plagued Washington throughout his time in Philadelphia. Washington eventually decided to free his slaves in his will, undertook measures to free wife Martha's dower slaves, and donated money toward the creation of the African Episcopal Church of St.Thomas.
Washington also conspired to prevent those enslaved individuals he held in the President's House from achieving their freedom by knowingly violating Pennsylvania law. Under the Gradual Abolition Law of 1780, citizens from other states were permitted to live in Pennsylvania with their slaves for a period of up to six months. The law also provided that any enslaved people residing here continuously for that length of time could take steps to obtain their own freedom.
In order to keep this from happening to the slaves brought from Mt. Vernon, Washington regularly rotated them out of Pennsylvania before the six-month deadline. Amendments to the Gradual Abolition Law passed in 1788, however, and made such actions illegal. He made life much more perilous for African Americans throughout the country (making up 1/5 of the total population) by signing into law the notorious Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.
Official White House link on President Washington
The Adams years 1797-1800
John Adams and his wife Abigail moved into the President's House in March 1797 upon his election to the presidency. Adams, a man of frugal habits, simple tastes, and a lifelong aversion to slavery, likely ran a much different household than his predecessor. Though Adams left no explicit records of how he functionally utilized the
President's House, we do know that during his time there, no slaves were ever in residence.
In contrast to the relative pomp of the Washington administration, the President's House under Adams appears to have exuded a much more sedate, aloof atmosphere (he regularly underspent his allotment for state functions and related entertaining). The largest function at the house during his residence occurred after Washington died in December 1799, when more than a hundred people attended Mrs. Adams' mourning "drawing room" in
During his presidency, Adams headed up a deeply divided and increasingly partisan government, as the nation became more and more entrenched along emergent Republican and Federalist Party lines. In foreign affairs, he wrestled with the "XYZ" diplomatic snub by the French, which very nearly plunged the new nation into war. Domestically, Adams' administration saw the ratification of the 11th
Amendment to the Constitution, the creation of a national
Navy, and the establishment of the Mississippi Territory, but was roundly criticized for signing into law the controversial Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. Adams left the President's House in May 1800, moving into the recently finished White House by November of the same year.
Official White House link on President Adams