The President's House : The President's House: A Story of Our Nation's First White House
A 21st century addition to Philadelphia’s Independence Mall area , an outline of the President’s House was constructed in 2010 to stand alongside some of our nation’s most glowing symbols of freedom such as Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall and the Liberty Bell. For more than 150 years, the history of the building was concealed in myth and mystery, beginning with the much-anticipated construction of the White House in the 1790s. The President’s House was influential in its time not only on the surrounding neighborhood of Philadelphia but on the nation itself…before, during and after it became the President’s House.
The President’s House was originally built in 1767, at 190 High Street on the south side of High Street (now, Market Street) between 5th and 6th streets. Its building was commissioned by the widowed Mary Lawrence Masters, one of the richest people in Philadelphia. The house was later given as a wedding present to Masters’ daughter Polly and her new husband Richard Penn. He was the lieutenant-governor of Pennsylvania and the grandson of the colony’s founder William Penn. In 1775, as tensions began to rise between the colonies and Great Britain, the Penns left Philadelphia and returned to England where he retained ownership of the property.
In 1777 British forces moved into Philadelphia and took-over the city. British Commander in Chief General Sir William Howe established his home and headquarters in the High Street residence. Less than one month after the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778, “American” Patriots reclaimed lost territory. Among these “Rebels” was one of the bravest and most skilled fighters of the American Revolution-Benedict Arnold. On June 19th 1778 he moved into the mansion as military governor, determined to punish the state’s Loyalist traitors. Suddenly, rumors of Arnold’s wavering loyalty began to spread among Philadelphia’s inhabitants who witnessed and questioned Arnold’s “grand lifestyle” and new love interest-suspected Loyalist, Peggy Shippen. They were right. His time in Philadelphia turned him into one of the most infamous and highly misunderstood figures of American history.
In the ten years before Washington made “190 High Street” into the President’s House, the mansion was home to two more prominent men. French diplomat John Holker occupied the house for a short time before starting a fire that consumed most of the building. Afterwards, investor Robert Morris bought the building’s remains and rebuilt it. In 1790, Morris offered it to Washington as his permanent home and headquarters while Philadelphia was the capital of this new nation. Washington and his household, which included staff and servants, moved into the mansion on November 27, 1790. Despite the need for some adjustments, Washington was pleased. In one letter to his secretary, he described it as the “best single house in the city.” Washington signed into law many important pieces of legislation while living and working there-such as the Bill of Rights and the Fugitive Slave Law.
In 1790, Philadelphia was home to 2,000 free blacks, this number tripled by 1800. Despite Washington’s prejudice, the state of Pennsylvania welcomed all men, regardless of color or religion. It was the first colony to pass a Gradual Abolition Act in 1780 that offered freedom to any slave living in the state for at least 6 straight months. This promise of freedom combined with the aid and security of the free black community drew many Africans to Philadelphia. Afraid of losing the nine slaves he brought from Mount Vernon, Washington sent them on out of state errands prior to every 6 month deadline, to prevent the law from taking effect. Nevertheless, the city inspired enough hope in slaves like Hercules (Washington’s chef) and Ona Judge to escape from slavery. Judge was supposed to be given as a wedding present to Martha Washington’s daughter; therefore, she wasted no time in finding ways to escape. With the help of some friends from the free black community, she fled to Portsmouth New Hampshire. There she spent the remainder of her life surrounded by family, but still a fugitive. As consequence for her ingratitude, Washington signed into law the Fugitive Slave Act. This Act claims running away is a crime, and if found all slaves must be returned to their masters.
The President’s House represents the very thing that makes the birth of our nation exceptional. In the words of Ray Rafael “It exposes the core contradiction at the founding of this nation”, with steps toward liberty hampered by slavery. It is for this very reason then, that 190 High Street should always be celebrated within and outside the city of hope, Philadelphia.
- George Washington-Tobias Lear Correspondence in Dorothy Twohig et al.,eds. The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, vol.6: University of Virginia Press,1996.
- Lawler,Edward Jr. "The President's House in Philadelphia: The Rediscovery of a Lost Landmark." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 126 (2002):5-95.
- Lawler,Edward Jr. "The President's House Revisited." Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 129 (2005):371-410.
524-30 Market Street