Hercules – also known as "Herculas" or "Uncle Harkless" – was a slave who worked at Mount Vernon, George Washington's Virginia plantation on the Potomac River. He was the head cook at the mansion in the 1780s, cooking for the Washington family and their guests. In 1790 President Washington brought him to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (then the temporary national capital) to cook in the kitchen of the President's House. Hercules escaped to freedom from Mount Vernon in 1797, and later was legally manumitted under the terms of Washington's will.
Life at Mount Vernon
Hercules was probably born around 1755, and was either the child of Washington's slaves or was purchased following Washington's 1759 marriage to the widow Martha Custis. He would have grown up on the plantation.
He chose Alice, one of Martha Washington's "dower" slaves, as his wife, and they had three children: Richmond (born 1777), Evey (born 1782), and Delia (born 1785). He, Alice, and the three children were listed in the February 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census, which records him as one of two cooks in the Mansion House. Alice died in 1787. Following her death, he may have had another daughter (born c. 1791).
Hercules was one of nine enslaved Africans brought to Philadelphia in 1790 by Washington to work in the presidential household. The others were his son Richmond (then 13 years old), Oney Judge, Moll, Austin, Christopher Sheels, Giles, Paris, and Joe (Richardson).
In the memoirs of Martha Washington's grandson, G.W.P. Custis, Hercules was recalled as "a celebrated artiste ... as highly accomplished a proficient in the culinary art as could be found in the United States." The cook was given the privilege of selling the extra food from the Philadelphia kitchen which, by Custis's estimate, earned him nearly $200 a year, the annual salary of a hired cook. According to Custis, Hercules was a dapper dresser and was given freedom to walk about in the city.
Pennsylvania passed a gradual abolition law in 1780 which prohibited non-residents from holding slaves in the state longer than six months. If held beyond that period, the state's Gradual Abolition Act gave slaves the legal power to free themselves. Members of Congress were specifically exempted from the act. Officers of the executive and judicial branches of the federal government were not mentioned since those branches didn't exist until the U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788.
When the national capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, there was a question about whether the state law would apply to federal officials. Washington argued (privately) that he was a citizen of Virginia, that his presence in Pennsylvania was solely a consequence of Philadelphia's being the temporary national capital, and that the state law should not apply to him. Rather than challenging the state law in court, Washington took the advice of his attorney general, Edmund Randolph, and systematically rotated the President's House slaves in and out of the state to prevent their establishing a six-month continuous residency. This rotation was itself a violation of Pennsylvania law, but no one challenged the President's actions. The U.S. Supreme Court later found Pennsylvania's 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act to be unconstitutional in Prigg v. Pennsylvania.
Washington allowed Hercules' son Richmond to work alongside his father in the Philadelphia kitchen for about a year, before returning him to Virginia. In November 1796, Richmond was implicated in a theft of money at Mount Vernon. Washington had suspicions that the father and son were planning a joint escape.
Stephen Decatur, Jr.'s book Private Affairs of George Washington (1933) stated that Hercules escaped to freedom from Philadelphia in March 1797, at the end of Washington's presidency. Decatur, a descendant of Washington's secretary, Tobias Lear, discovered a cache of family papers unavailable to scholars, and presented Hercules's escape from Philadelphia as fact.
New research documents that Hercules was left behind at Mount Vernon when the Washingtons returned to Philadelphia following Christmas 1796. Historian Anna Coxe Toogood found Hercules and Richmond listed in the Mount Vernon farm records during the winter of 1796-97. They and other domestic servants were assigned as laborers, to pulverize stone, dig brick clay, and grub out honeysuckle.
In November 2009, Mary V. Thompson, research specialist at Mount Vernon, discovered that Hercules's escape to freedom was from Mount Vernon, and that it occurred on February 22, 1797 – Washington's 65th birthday. The president celebrated the day in Philadelphia, but it was also a holiday on the plantation. An entry in that week's Mount Vernon farm report noted that Hercules "absconded 4 [days ago]".
Freedom for some
Louis-Philippe, the future king of France, visited Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797. According to his April 5 diary entry:
The general's cook ran away, being now in Philadelphia, and left a little daughter of six at Mount Vernon. Beaudoin ventured that the little girl must be deeply upset that she would never see her father again; she answered, "Oh! Sir, I am very glad, because he is free now."
Hercules remained in hiding. In 1798, the former-President's House steward, Frederick Kitt, informed Washington that the fugitive was living in Philadelphia:
"Since your departure I have been making distant enquiries about Herculas but did not till about four weeks ago hear anything of him and that was only that [he] was in town neither do I yet know where he is, and that it will be very difficult to find out in the secret manner necessary to be observed on the occasion."
The 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census listed 124 enslaved Africans owned by Washington and 153 "dower" slaves owned by Martha Washington's family. Washington's 1799 Will instructed that his slaves be freed upon Martha's death. Washington died on December 14, 1799. At Martha Washington's request, the three executors of Washington's Estate freed her late husband's slaves on January 1, 1801. It is possible that Hercules did not know he had been manumitted, and legally was no longer a fugitive.
In a December 15, 1801, letter, Martha Washington indicated that she had learned that Hercules, by then legally free, was living in New York City. Nothing more is known of his whereabouts or life in freedom.
Because Alice had been a "dower" slave – owned by the estate of Martha Washington's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis – the children of Hercules and his wife were legally property of the Custis Estate. The children remained enslaved and were among the "dowers" divided among Martha Washington's four grandchildren following her 1802 death.
A new building for the Liberty Bell opened in Philadelphia in 2003. During excavation in 2000, remnants of the icehouse of the long-demolished President's House were uncovered. A more extensive archeological excavation was undertaken in 2007, which revealed foundations of the kitchen, an underground passage that connected the kitchen to the main house, and foundations of the Bow Window (a precursor to the Oval Office). A memorial has been created on the site of the President's House to commemorate the house and all its residents, and honor the contributions of the slaves there and in Philadelphia and US history.
A picture book for young children about Hercules, A Birthday Cake for George Washington illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton and authored by Ramin Ganeshram, was published by Scholastic Trade Publishing in January 2016. After receiving severe and widespread criticism for illustrations "depicting happy slaves," it was pulled by its publisher.
- Louis-Philippe, Diary of My Travels in America, translation by Stephen Becker (New York: Delacorte Press, 1977), p. 32.
- 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census. Diaries of George Washington, vol. 4, Donald Jackson & Dorothy Twohig, eds., (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press), pp. 277–83.1786
- The sole source for this additional daughter is Louis Philippe's diary (see below). Louis Philippe's secretary estimated her age as 6, but the child may have been Hercules's younger daughter Delia, then 11 or 12.
- Sarah, the wife of "Postilion Joe", and their children took the surname "Richardson" after being free under Washington's Will. Joe was a "dower" slave, and was not freed.
- Lawler, Edward Jr. (2014). "Hercules". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
- Craig LaBan, "Hercules: Master of cuisine, slave of Washington"], Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
- "An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. (1780)". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. 2014. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
- Any future child of an enslaved mother was born free, but also was required to work as an indentured servant for the mother's master until age 28.
- President Washington's dilemma
- By strict legal interpretation, a slave's residency could be terminated by spending one day outside the state. Non-resident slaveholders exploited this loophole until Pennsylvania eliminated it with a 1788 amendment to the Gradual Abolition Act. It was this amendment that Washington repeatedly violated. He was also careful never to spend six continuous months in Pennsylvania himself (which might be interpreted as establishing legal residency), arguing that he remained a citizen of Virginia, and subject to its laws regarding slavery.
- Lawler, Edward Jr. (2014). "Richmond". The President's House in Philadelphia. Independence Hall Association. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
- Stephen Decatur, Jr., Private Affairs of George Washington, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1933), p. 296.
- LaBan, Craig. "Hercules. Washington's Chef". Philadelphia Inquirer. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
- Craig LaBan, "A birthday shock from Washington's chef", Philadelphia Inquirer, 22 February 2010, accessed 2 April 2012
- Frederick Kitt to George Washington, 15 January 1798. The Papers of George Washington, Retirement Series, vol. 2, p. 25.
- 1799 Mount Vernon Slave Census, from University of Virginia Press.
- "George Washington's Last Will and Testament". National Archives. July 9, 1799. Retrieved January 19, 2016.
- Martha Washington to Col. Richard Varick, 15 December 1801. "Worthy Partner:" The Papers of Martha Washington, Joseph E. Fields, ed., (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 398-99.
- Ganeshram, Ramin (January 5, 2016). A Birthday Cake for George Washington. Illustrated by Brantley-Newton, Vanessa. Scholastic. ISBN 978-0-545-53823-7.
- Mondor, Colleen (January 14, 2016). "We Need to Stop Publishing Books Depicting Happy Slaves". Chasing Ray. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
- "Kids Book Depicts Happy Slaves at George Washington's Estate". TeleSUR. January 15, 2016. Retrieved January 17, 2016.
- "Scholastic pulls George Washington book over slave cake controversy". Guardian. Associated Press. Retrieved 18 January 2016.
- "New statement about the picture book "A Birthday Cake for George Washington"". Scholastic. January 17, 2016. Retrieved January 19, 2016.