February 14, 2014 |
Schools across the country are adorned with posters of the 44 U.S. presidents and the years they served in office. U.S. history textbooks describe the accomplishments and challenges of the major presidential administrations—George Washington had the Revolutionary War, Abraham Lincoln the Civil War, Teddy Roosevelt the Spanish-American War, and so on. Children’s books put students on a first-name basis with the presidents, engaging readers with stories of their dogs in the Rose Garden or childhood escapades. Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution welcomes visitors to an exhibit of the first ladies’ gowns and White House furnishings.
Nowhere in all this information is there any mention of the fact that more than one in four U.S. presidents were involved in human trafficking and slavery . These presidents bought, sold, and bred enslaved people for profit. Of the 12 presidents who were enslavers, more than half kept people in bondage at the White House. For this reason, there is little doubt that the first person of African descent to enter the White House—or the presidential homes used in New York (1788–90) and Philadelphia (1790–1800) before construction of the White House was complete—was an enslaved person.
The White House itself, the home of presidents and quintessential symbol of the U.S. presidency, was built with slave labor, just like most other major building projects had been in the 18th-century United States, including many of our most famous buildings like Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, and James Madison’s Montpellier. President Washington initially wanted to hire foreign labor to build the White House, but when he realized how costly it would be to pay people fairly, he resorted to slave labor. . . .