It’s perhaps fitting that our final blog post before our next issue comes from Elizabeth Mosier, whose “I Have, I Fear, the Literary Temperament” closed our last issue. In that piece, Mosier demonstrated her skill as a thorough researcher with an eye for hidden, fascinating narratives, uncovering the story of Dorothy Burr Thompson, an engaging diarist torn between becoming a writer or a scholar. In the piece below, she recounts the story of Hercules, a slave who escaped Mt. Vernon, the plantation of George Washington.
It’s high tourist season in Philadelphia, and so not at all unusual—if slightly unsettling— to find a man beside me on the regional rail platform clad in breeches, buckled shoes, and a tri-corner hat. He’s commuting, as I am, to Independence National Historical Park, but he’s costumed for interpreting history at the Visitors’ Center, while I’m clad in privy-picker jeans and black t-shirt for my volunteer work at the archaeology lab.
Like any city, Philadelphia has its versions: public and private, seen and unseen, drafted and revised. This summer morning, the two of us proceed down busy Market Street, parting at 6th and Market Streets, the location of George Washington’s residence and slaves’ quarters from 1790 – 97. This complicated narrative—democracy framed upon the faulty foundation of slavery—first drew me to the site. That week, a team of archaeologists revealed the mortared stone walls of the “Philadelphia White House” and, in the process, disturbed the surface of a story last interpreted for the United States Bicentennial.
When I first visited the dig with my daughters, I couldn’t help but read the emerging revision as a writer would. There, in the ground, was the visible footprint of the bow-windowed room that architectural historians say is the precedent to the modern-day Oval Office. Washington added it to the house for the purpose of meeting visitors at his level, not elevated and enthroned like a king. And there, five feet away, was the open-hearth kitchen where the enslaved man called Hercules cooked the president’s meals.
One version of the story is shaped by this proximity: the symbol of democracy next to the brick and mortar evidence of slavery. Here, in this ironic setting, Hercules rises from plantation slave to celebrated chef, his talents and loyalty to Washington rewarded with unusual privileges. He makes an income from selling kitchen scraps, buys fine clothing, strolls Philadelphia’s abolitionist streets. Narrative tension is sustained by the dissonance between text (the appearance of liberty) and subtext (the reality of bondage)—and satisfyingly resolved in March, 1797, when Hercules escapes.
Or so the story goes. Structurally, this version is as elegant as the portrait presumed to be of Hercules, painted by Washington’s own portraitist, Gilbert Stuart. But portraiture is not a story. And that is the problem at the root of this narrative: a complete dramatic action is elusive when the protagonist isn’t free to act. Or when the protagonist vanishes.
If this were fiction, the writer might attempt to open and deepen the draft by shifting narrative point of view. Seeing events through Hercules’ eyes would compel the writer to develop him as a character—not simply present him as an ironic figure in Washington’s conflicted tale.
But this is history, and only facts can free the narrative from the limits imposed by its frame. In fact, the age and provenance of the famous portrait isn’t fixed. The tall toque Hercules wears is a style that wasn’t popular until later, in the early nineteenth century; Stuart scholars don’t acknowledge the painting as part of the artist’s body of work. And a discovery by Mt. Vernon research historian Mary V. Thompson not only recasts the story’s climax, but also offers an ending that opens into Hercules’ probable future.
In the Mt. Vernon farm report dated February 25, 1797, Hercules is listed as “absconded for four days,” meaning Hercules fled to Philadelphia, not from it (as Washington later wrote in a letter to his secretary, Tobias Lear). Meaning Washington’s birthday (February 22) was the occasion for his flight. As Washington hosted parties in Philadelphia, the culinary artist supposedly valued for his skill and loyalty was in fact at Mt. Vernon, assigned to the hard labor of digging clay for bricks—and, it turns out, plotting his escape.
And the portrait of Hercules—which journeyed to aristocratic residences in Paris and Gloucestershire, England, before reaching its current home in Spain’s Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza—could have been painted by someone other than Stuart, after Hercules fled to Europe from Philadelphia and joined the household of a British diplomat.
Though the ground at the President’s House site is now covered, the dig for hidden stories continues. And I’m reminded of what Independence National Park Service archeologist Jed Levin explained to me when I first signed on for the long project of processing artifacts: archaeological research is intended to illuminate what is uncovered at the dig, and not merely to preserve it.
In the end, it didn’t surprise me that the “interpretive text” for the President’s House memorial took longer to construct than the ghost structure built at the site to enclose this monumental story.
The first draft, briefly on display at the Independence Visitor Center, elicited conflicting reviews—too concerned with slavery, not concerned enough with slavery, dominated by well-known figures like Washington and Adams—and rare consensus that the long-awaited memorial was “unimaginative.” Writing crafted by committee is often mediocre, in part because the process of compromise moves vivid, often opposing, views toward the duller middle. And this particular project is constrained by a marketing agenda separate from its historical one; you sense the rush to reassure visitors with a falsely balanced presentation, one that seeks to “brand” Philadelphia even while it liberates the stories of Washington’s nine slaves: Moll, Austin, Richmond, Giles, Paris, Christopher Sheels, Joe Richardson, Oney Judge, and Hercules.
But there is judgment in any narrative, whether overtly stated or conveyed by framing, emphasis, and omission. As a writer, what I found most revealing in the draft was the persistent use of passive voice to tell the story of slavery: History is lost to these Africans, who were kidnapped and transported to America and given new names and forced to learn a new language. The agent is missing in these constructions, either unknown or (still) unacknowledged.
Elizabeth Mosier’s nonfiction has appeared most recently in the HerStories Voices column, Cleaver, Creative Nonfiction, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. Her essay, “Believers,” was selected as notable in The Best American Essays 2015. A seven-year volunteer technician for the Independence National Park Archaeology Laboratory, she is at work on a collection of essays on archaeology, memory, and home.