The “Restaurant and Food” section of the Philadelphia Inquirer is running a two part series on Hercules, George Washington’s slave and chef while he served as president in Philadelphia from 1790-1797.
Recent controversy over the President’s House, at Sixth and Market Streets, has renewed interest in Hercules and the lives of the other eight slaves who worked for Washington during his presidency in Philadelphia from 1790 to 1797. Their story surged into the international spotlight with the 2007 dig that unearthed the kitchen foundation and an underground passageway leading to it, obviously used by servants. Ironically, the kitchen where Hercules toiled was just in front of the new Liberty Bell Center.
The saga of Hercules has emerged as compelling historical drama – his rise from plantation slave to respected chef in the president’s kitchen, his appearance as a loyal servant trusted to stroll the city’s boulevards in fine clothes, and his clever escape.
Indeed, a supposed portrait of Hercules in full cook’s regalia that has been attributed to Gilbert Stuart has become one of the iconic images of the slave memorial being built at the President’s House and now scheduled to open this year.
Through the eyes of George Washington Parke Custis, the president’s stepgrandson, who grew up in his Philadelphia home, Hercules was a “celebrated artiste” in the kitchen, “as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States.” He also was the family’s beloved “Uncle Harkless” and a gilded boulevardier, the “veriest dandy” of his age, Custis wrote in his 1860 memoir.
But contemporary historians such as Mary V. Thompson of Mount Vernon, Anna Coxe Toogood of Independence National Historical Park, David R. Hoth of the Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, and Edward Lawler Jr. of the Independence Hall Association have gone beyond Custis’ memories to tease the outlines of Hercules’ narrative from household account books, correspondences, and Mount Vernon farm reports.
His story has become the inspiration for preachers’ sermons, a televised chef segment on PBS, and activists and historians who want to bring sharper focus to the Founding Fathers’ dark entanglement with slavery.
“It helps people understand . . . freedom for whites was often built on the backs of enslaved people,” says Gary B. Nash, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Slavery is liberty’s evil twin brother. We think of them as polar opposites, and yet they’re joined at the hip.”