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Democracy, liberty and a cook called Hercules

Today I was invited to WHYY in Philadelphia to participate in a radio programme. The theme was the silent rise of demagogues and dictators today and in the past. My part focussed on some celebrated Italians - Julius Caesar, Augustus and their modern Italian counterpart, Benito Mussolini. But history is rather different from contemporary affairs. History has treated the Romans pretty generously, and Il Duce much less so. The programme wanted to focus on the manipulation of power and elimination of opponents, as opposed to their welcome investment in infrastructure and the economy. The latter seemed to make my interlocutors a tad uncomfortable. This, though, is a material and elemental part of history which should not be ignored in the past or today.

Washington's House, Philadelphia

WHYY is beside Independence Mall so I exited the studio to a rather archaeological reality. Crowds of Chinese visitors made up the greater part of the sea of people streaming towards Independence Hall. The growing Sino-American trade war, it seems, is someone else’s business.

In the seat of liberty, they are ambling around the curious remains of George Washington’s first “White House”. At face value, it looks like a show home under construction. The ground floor walls and window frames reconstruct the street frontage of the early Georgian house. You can peer into the excavated basement where the footings of the great cooking range were discovered 15 years ago. Likely as not, though, you’ll be drawn to the television screen and illustrated panels. These focus less upon the US’s first president and more upon Hercules, the African-American slave who was effectively Washington’s cook. The great general may have won liberty from the imperial British, but the panels explain, he sustained their attitudes to servitude while enjoy pretty much a colonial life-style.

Washington's House panel

The curious fragments of this once significant house are intentionally distractions for those queueing patiently to see the liberty bell. Made in Whitechapel, London in 1751, was it cracked by the time it reached the colonial city? If so, it served Philadelphia for a further 90 years, and in its museological afterlife continues to serve the city today.

The message? Well, the official website says the following:

‘The Liberty Bell's inscription is from Leviticus 25:10: "Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof." This Old Testament verse refers to the "Jubilee", or the instructions to the Israelites to return property and free slaves every 50 years. Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly Isaac Norris chose this inscription for the State House bell in 1751, possibly to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Penn's 1701 Charter of Privileges which granted religious liberties and political self-government to the people of Pennsylvania. The inscription of liberty on the State House bell (now known as the Liberty Bell) went unnoticed during the Revolutionary War. After the war, abolitionists seeking to end slavery in America were inspired by the bell's message.’

Washington's kitchen

Did the founding fathers ever examine the inscription? Or were they happy that this magnificent object, like Washington’s house and his kitchenware, now served a new version of liberty. What, one wonders, would Hercules have made of the inscription? History, when you start excavating, is pretty complicated and all the more fascinating for being so.

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