Irate conservatives this week dismissed Michelle Obama’s assertion at the Democratic Convention that enslaved workers built the President’s mansion. They’re dead wrong, and Mrs. Obama is precisely right. Here’s the real story, which I explored at length in my book “Washington: The Making of the American Capital” (Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008), a history of how the politics of slavery helped to determine the location of the nation’s capital, and the role that slaves played in the construction of the city.
In the early 1790s, when construction on the federal buildings began, in theory it should have been possible to hire enough free white workers to undertake the jobs that needed to be done. But most local whites shunned what they harshly called “n—-r work.” Moreover, the commissioners appointed by George Washington to oversee the construction of the city were all slave owners, and deeply suspicious of independent white labor. Free men were liable to complain, agitate, disobey their superiors, and walk off the job. As one observer put it, the free white worker “becomes the greatest puppy imaginable, and much unpleasanter even than the Negro.”
There was of course a solution to the commissioners’ labor anxieties readily to hand: slaves in abundance. Masters could lease their slaves to the commissioners for a handsome profit, which might range as high as 23 percent of their market value for one year’s work. They could generally be hired locally for about three-fifths the cost of the cheapest unskilled free labor. Moreover, as early as 1793, the federal commissioners deliberately undercut white workers’ demands for higher wages by making it clear that they could always be replaced by slaves, who “have proven a very useful check and kept our affairs cool.”
White workers made up about one-third of the workforce in the capital at any given time, mostly as skilled stone-carvers and at certain other specialized trades. In 1795, about 300 slaves were working in the city-to-be, including the White House and the Capitol Building, half of them for the federal commissioners and the rest for private contractors. The white workforce then numbered about 150.
Slaves generally were assigned the roughest and least-skilled tasks: hauling timber, dragging sledges, digging foundations, stirring mortar, toting baskets of stone, and the like. Some were highly skilled, however, such as White House architect James Hoban’s private team of five enslaved carpenters. Hoban earned $60 a month from the commissioners for the work of his carpenters, one of whom was so superior in his workmanship that he — or rather Hoban — was paid more than free white workers on the same job.
Who were these enslaved men? The federal commissioners’ yellowing records tell us nothing personal about them. But their names can be found, along with the jobs they did, and the amount that their masters were paid for their work, in box after box stored at the National Archives’ facility in College Park, Maryland. Many hundreds of the chits for their work survive on scraps of old paper, there for anyone to read. There you’ll find Commissioner Gustavus Scott’s two slaves, Kitt and Bob; William Somerwell’s Charles; Susannah Johnson’s Peter, Nace, Basil, and Will; George Fenwick’s Auston, and many, many more.
Thanks to Michelle Obama for reminding us of them, and that slavery was embedded in our country from the founding, just as it was in the erection of our most important symbolic national buildings.