Washington’s Chef

I read a fascinating article about George Washington’s master chef, a slave named Hercules. This article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, tells what is known of Hercules’ story and how he could have escaped with relative ease while George Washington served as president in Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States.

At that time, Philadelphia’s freed black population vastly outnumbered those trapped in slavery and the Quakers were passionate abolitionists who would have gladly assisted in an escape attempt. Instead, Hercules stayed with Washington, perhaps out of loyalty, according to scholars.

Washington, who is famous with schoolchildren for his inability to tell a lie, did just that in order to keep Hercules in slavery. He also subverted the laws of the land that he took an oath to uphold. In the end, he freed the slaves in his possession upon his and his wife’s deaths but during his life he went to extraordinary lengths to recover Hercules who finally did escape from Mount Vernon (a much more difficult and dangerous escape route than what he would have faced in Philadelphia).

Hercules was never recaptured, despite Washington’s efforts to locate him. The portrait above is believed to be of him later in life, after his escape. Perhaps he voyaged to Europe and continued his culinary career there. No one knows.

It’s a much more complicated version of the Washington myth and it’s a fascinating read.

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