Drinking with George Washington in Philadelphia
George Washington was a Philadelphian. While he’s most often associated with Mount Vernon in Virginia, the truth is that he spent nearly his entire public life in Philadelphia, both as a general and president.
In 1776, Philadelphia was the second largest city in the British Empire. With a population of 40,000 and some 6,000 impressive brick buildings, it was the largest city Washington ever visited – and his favorite.
Miraculously, 2,000 of those 18th Century brick buildings still survive today. On a weekend trip, it’s possible to visit many of the most important sites associated with Washington’s life and also get a sense of the man. You can step inside his favorite tavern and sip a beer made from his own recipe, waltz across the same floorboards where he once danced the night away with Ben Franklin’s daughter, cross the Delaware at the spot where he saved the Revolution, or visit another battlefield where he nearly lost it.
You can even sit in a church pew where he sat 225 years ago, the only place in the world where you can rest your bottom on the same wooden boards he once did.
Here are ten places to visit on an all-Washington weekend in Philadelphia.
1. Independence Hall http://www.nps.gov/inde/ The most important building in American history was also the most important in Washington’s life. It was here in May 1775 that he was appointed commander in chief of the Continental Army. He began his public career in this hall with a less than inspiring speech, telling Congress, “I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command.” Master Carpenter Edmund Woolley built the hall in 1747 for Pennsylvania’s colonial government. Because it was the largest hall in the largest city in the colonies, it became the site for the Second Continental Congress. The Declaration of Independence was approved here in July 1776 and Washington presided over the Constitutional Convention here in 1787. The actual chair he sat in still sits in the center of the room and before it is the inkwell that was used to sign the Declaration.
2. Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States http://www.nps.gov/inde/second-banknde/second-bank A block away, the Portrait Gallery is a wonderful place to get a sense of what Washington and his contemporaries looked like. While there are long lines for Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, you can always walk into this free museum, where you are encouraged to turn the flash off your camera and take photos of all the artwork. After all, since this is a federal museum – you own everything in here. Some of the most famous paintings of George and Martha are on the walls, mixed with paintings of most of Washington’s generals. Unlike the portrait on the dollar bill (painted shortly before his death when he was a very old man) Washington was for most of his life an extremely tall, athletic and imposing figure. Contemporaries described him as “god-like.” Thomas Jefferson thought him the greatest horseman of his age and the paintings and statues here depict him as such. An exhibit two blocks away at the National Constitution Center http://www.constitutioncenter.org/ gives some perspective. There are life-size statues here of all 26 delegates to the Constitution Convention of 1787. At six-foot, two-inches in height, the statue of Washington is the tallest in the room, a foot taller than tiny Alexander Hamilton or even smaller James Madison.
3. City Tavern. http://www.citytavern.com/ Located two blocks behind Independence Hall is the place John Adams called “the most genteel tavern in America.” Beyond serving food and drink, colonial taverns were the nerve centers of the city. A “subscription room” in City Tavern had all the newspapers of the day and men gathered here in a room filled with tobacco smoke and politics to read and discuss the latest events. Paul Revere rode from Boston to Philadelphia to bring the news of fighting at Lexington and Concord and his first stop was City Tavern. During the Second Continental Congress, George Washington took a table at City Tavern and dined here nightly. What did he eat? Wealthy people in Colonial Philadelphia ate very similar food to us, though it was much more difficult to prepare. Beef, chicken, hams, baked oysters, lamb, game and all varieties of fish. Banquets could offer up to 140 different courses and dining was considered an experience more than just a meal. Liquor, coffee, tea and ice cream were available at the tavern at all times. George was a big fan of ice cream and Madeira wine was his drink of choice, but he also drank beer, rum, punch and champagne. A recipe for porter beer found in his desk is now served at City Tavern, along with a pale ale made from a recipe by Thomas Jefferson. They’re both terrible, but how often do you drink history? The original City Tavern was torn down in 1854, but working from the architect’s plans, the National Park Service built an exact replica in 1975. The Tavern now serves lunch and dinner with a colonial inspired menu. Waiters dress in 18th century costumes and the dining rooms are lit by candlelight. Try the West Indies pepperpot soup or the Martha Washington-style Colonial turkey pot pie…and get the four ounce samplers of historic beers. There’s still a tavern too, if you want to just pop in for a beer.
4. Powel House, http://www.philalandmarks.org/ Amazingly, the house that Washington lived in for seven years while he was president was torn down. But you can get a sense of how he lived by visiting the home of his good friends, Samuel and Elizabeth Powel. Their elegant, 1765 Georgian brick townhouse is located a short walk from City Tavern and is a museum with period furniture. Eliza Powel was Philadelphia’s most gracious and popular hostess and George and Martha were frequent guests, stealing many decorating ideas from the Powel’s, which they incorporated in Mount Vernon. The Washington’s celebrated their 20th anniversary here. A letter to Ben Franklin from his daughter describes George dancing the night away in the second floor ballroom of the house. Martha didn’t dance, but George was an enthusiastic dancer (regularly dancing three hours without a break) and he liked the company of ladies. A woman meeting him during the revolution wrote, when “General Washington throws off the hero and takes on the chatty, agreeable companion, he can be downright impudent sometimes – such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like.” When Washington died, Martha cut four locks of his hair for special friends. The one given to Eliza Powel is on display in the house.
5. Christ Church and St. Peters Church. www.christchurchphila.org/ Washington was not particularly religious, but like all people of the time, he attended church regularly. He was a member of Christ Church, located a few blocks from Independence Hall. You can see his pew, No. 56-58, located next to that of Betsy Ross. Washington was wealthy and so had an excellent view of the pulpit; Betsy was poor and a pillar blocked her view of the minister. Christ Church is one of the places that can claim, “Washington slept here” because the sermons generally ran two hours. The impressive red brick Christ Church was the tallest building in America until 1830 and there are more signers of the Declaration of Independence buried here than anywhere else. Ben Franklin did some of his electricity experiments from the steeple.
St. Peters Church www.stpetersphila.org/, a short walk away, was the church of the Powel’s, and Washington frequently attended church here as well. The wood pews in Saint Peters have never been changed; sit in the Powel pew and you are sitting in the only place in the world that will let you sit where George Washington once sat.
6. Elfreth’s Alley http://www.elfrethsalley.org/ To get an idea what colonial Philadelphia looked like, walk a few blocks from Christ Church to Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest continuously inhabited street in America. The cobblestone, 16-foot-wide alley is lined with 32 brick rowhouses built between 1728 and 1836. Originally, these were the homes of grocers, shoemakers, tailors and other tradesmen who worked on the bottom floor and lived up above. Today, they are all private houses, but two of them built in 1755 operate as a small museum providing a glimpse at colonial city life. George Washington marched his army down this street in 1777 en route to the Battle of Brandywine. It’s easy to tell which houses were here at that time. Homes from the revolutionary era had front doors that opened directly onto the street. Because the streets were filthy, the stoop was invented and homes built later had doors that opened a foot above the street onto a stone stoop.
7. Washington’s Crossing www.ushistory.org/washingtoncrossing You can follow in the footsteps of Washington’s most famous military action just an hour north of the city, in a beautiful location along the Delaware River. Two state parks, one in Pennsylvania and one across the river in New Jersey, tell the story of the dramatic events that took place here. The revolution got off to a good start in 1776. Washington drove the British from Boston and marched his army of 20,000 to New York. But then the Empire struck back, sending over the largest armada and invading army the world had ever known. In a series of battles, the redcoats defeated Washington and drove his ragtag army south in retreat through New Jersey and across the Delaware River. To the British, the revolution appeared to be over. But Washington, a card player and gambler, decided to stake everything on one last throw of the dice – he would stop retreating and go on the offensive, crossing the Delaware in a surprise attack on Trenton. At the parks, you can visit the two ferry houses that Washington used as headquarters and walk across the river on a bridge at the spot where Washington famously crossed in a boat on Christmas night. Museums in each park use films and exhibits to trace the coming battle that saved America. It’s even possible to walk on the actual road where Washington’s troops marched, many of them leaving a trail of blood in the snow from their broken shoes. The story of the battle is brilliantly told in David McCullogh’s best selling book, 1776.
8. Brandywine Battlefield www.ushistory.org/brandwine Located 45 minutes west of Philadelphia, Brandywine was the largest battle of the American Revolution. It’s not a household name like Saratoga or Yorktown because the battle was a disaster for the Americans and arguably Washington’s worst day as a general. In New York, the British had defeated him by pretending a head-on attack, while secretly sending part of their army around the American lines to attack them in the rear. At Brandywine, Britain’s crack troops did the same thing again. The state park preserves one of Washington’s headquarters and has an excellent museum with exhibits about the tactics and strategy used in the Philadelphia campaign. Much of the battle took place on what is now private land, but a driving tour visits the beautiful countryside, which has changed very little. The defeat at Brandywine in 1777 allowed the British to capture Philadelphia. As an insult, the British turned Independence Hall into a stable and City Tavern became the headquarters for redcoat social life. But Washington was not finished yet.
9. Germantown While England was rejoicing over the capture of Philadelphia, Washington was planning another surprise attack. Barely a month after Brandywine, Washington pounced, his army attacking the British encampment at Germantown from five directions. Fog and confusion defeated the Americans, but the mere fact they had gone on the offensive was a victory. Today, Germantown has been swallowed up into suburban Philadelphia, but there are still 30 stone colonial homes here, five of which are museums. At Cliveden www.cliveden.org/ you are in the center of the battlefield. At the height of the action, 120 British troops ducked into this mansion and fortified it, firing at the rebels from the upper windows. Washington’s men attacked again and again and soon there were 75 dead Americans stacked at the front door and on the grounds, but the British held. In a rare nod to historic preservation, the house was left exactly as it was after the battle. The exterior walls are covered with bullet holes. Bizarre statues on the grounds have no faces – they were shot off by musket balls in the cross fire and have never been replaced. Nearby, the Deshler-Morris House, www.nps.gov/demo, was the British headquarters during the battle. Ironically, it would later in 1793-94 become the Germantown White House, when Washington lived here as president. It is the oldest presidential residence in the United States and is now maintained as a museum with period furniture by the National Park Service. Washington came here in the summer of 1793 to escape a Yellow Fever epidemic that killed 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population. Cabinet meetings with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were held in the study.
10. Valley Forge www.nps.gov/vafo Located 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia, Valley Forge is one of the most famous names associated with the Revolution – and one of the least understood. No battles were fought here, and while the army suffered from a lack of food and supplies, the misery the army endured at Valley Forge was no worse than what the soldiers suffered every winter. In fact, the winter at Valley Forge was milder than usual. The misunderstandings come from romanticized versions of the encampment written into early histories. What Valley Forge does so well is tell the story of the hardships that all men endured in 18th Century warfare. The National Park Service has replicated samples of the 1,500 crude huts the men lived in and has exhibits and films on the diseases and supply problems that plagued the army and caused 2,000 deaths that winter. Washington made his headquarters at the Isaac Potts House. The pretty fieldstone house looks quiet today and it is difficult to imagine how chaotic it must have been when all 25 members of Washington’s staff lived here. Martha was here also. George and Martha were very much in love and devoted to each other. Though it was rare at the time, Martha spent many winters with the army, enduring great personal risk and hardship traveling by coach and sleigh to be with her “old man,” as she called him. She was adored by Washington’s staff, who found the General much easier to deal with when Martha was around. George and Martha shared the upstairs bedroom in the Potts House and made time for a private breakfast together there each morning. The room is decorated as it would have been.
The Revolution dragged on nearly five years after Valley Forge. George wrote to Martha almost every day they were apart. When he died, she burned all but two of the letters. America’s first couple spent almost all of their lives in public service, but Martha ensured that their private life would stay private forever.
11. The President’s House. This new attraction opened on July 4, 2011 and tells a very different story of Washington and his life in Philadelphia — the fact that he kept nine slaves with him while he lived here as President. Here is a review of the site by Denver Post entertainment editor Ray Mark Rinaldi. www.denverpost.com/search/ci_18385836 Washington and slavery is a complex story; the definitive history of the subject is An Imperfect God by Henry Wiencek. The review of the book in Publisher’s Weekly concludes about Washington, “While by no means above dissimulation, even lying, about his and Martha’s bond servants, by the time of his death in 1799 Washington had become a firm, if quiet, opponent of the slave system. By freeing his slaves upon Martha’s death, he stood head and shoulders above almost all his American contemporaries.” Still, it is a very different Washington that you will encounter at the President’s House, one who bought and sold human beings, was deceptive to them and possibly broke the law by keeping them in bondage while living in a free state. It’s all history now…but a history that should never be forgotten.
IF YOU GO: For more information on Philadelphia, visit: www.gophila.com/