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Hercules, George Washington’s Slave Chef

Scholastic pulled a children’s book called A Birthday Cake For George Washington from its catalog. It was released on January 5 and immediately drew backlash from book critics and in Amazon reviews. The book shows George Washington’s slave chef Hercules and his daughter Delia joyfully preparing a cake for Washington’s 65th birthday. Adult reviewers understandably object to the portrayal of slavery as joyful, particularly as it is introduced to young children. You can read about the book at Buzzfeed.

Hercules was a real person, and his real story is fascinating. He is today the most famous slave of the Washingtons, not only for his reputation as a chef, but for the fact that he successfully escaped. President Washington resided in Philadelphia during his presidency, which was the nation’s capital from 1790 to 1800. Washington brought Hercules to the city to cook for the family. But Pennsylvania passed a law in 1780, An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which placed various restrictions on the practice. One part stated that any slave brought into Pennsylvania who held residency there for six months would become free. Washington got around that by sending his house slaves back to Mt. Vernon before their six months was up -and bringing them back again after some time, resetting the clock. That’s why Hercules was sent back to do regular labor at the farm in Virginia. The slave rotation scheme was technically illegal, but no one called the president out on it.    

When George Washington was celebrating his 65th birthday on February 22, 1797, the president was in Philadelphia, and Hercules was at Mt. Vernon in Virginia -and that’s the day he left, never to be seen again, at least by the Washingtons. While Hercules was legally freed after Washington’s death in accordance with his will, there is no evidence that he ever knew about that. Hercules’ wife and children were owned by Martha Washington, and they were never freed. You can read more about Hercules at the Mt. Vernon website with further details at Wikipedia.

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