One of the new additions to “Blog, or Die.” will be periodic guest posts by fellow historians. Our first candidate and I have collaborated for years over at The Jefferson Project and The Free Lance-Star Town & County. His name is Chris Williams and he is a graduate of VCU, very active politically in the African-American community, and a contributing writer to such award-winning publications as Street Report Magazine. Chris is also an R&B songwriter and producer. His specialty is correlating early American history to today and he has penned several outstanding pieces on Black History Month.
Chris and I have a sincere respect for one another and we often have difficult discussions over issues like racism and historical memory. It was his interpretations of the Founding Fathers that initiated the TJ Project. We don’t always agree, but we glean wisdom from each other’s views and our work is far better for it. Chris recently suggested that we construct some pieces regarding race from the Old America to the New America and in a recent email to me he wrote, “Race is a topic that is almost a societal taboo to speak on, but I have no problem expressing my opinions on it because it's something that we all deal with every day in different ways.”
I asked my friend if he would allow me to share a piece he penned on the origins of the White House. In it he brilliantly integrates the history of the building with the historic presidency that dominated the attention of the day. This article ran just before President Obama’s inauguration and is incredibly fascinating. As the issue of race has become a regular topic here, I can’t think of a better way to kick-off our guest posts than sharing this seldom discussed piece of American history.
THE WHITE HOUSE AND OBAMA
By Chris Williams
FLS (T&C), January 17, 2009
Since its inception, the White House has been a representation of liberty, democracy and independence. What many Americans don't know is how the actual building was constructed and the correlation it has with the heritage of our incoming president, Barack Obama, whose inauguration is Tuesday.
Obama's heritage has intrigued both Republicans and Democrats, but in researching the history of the White House I found striking similarities between the ancestral lineages of the people who designed and built it and of the man who will be residing there next week.
As the story goes, in 1790 the first U.S. Congress approved the Act of Residence to create the permanent seat of the federal government. The act empowered President George Washington to locate America's capital along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
It designated Philadelphia as the temporary capital for 10 years until the completion of a presidential residence and a capitol in Washington.
George Washington had a grand vision for the buildings. They would be emblematic of the democracy that America acquired just nine years earlier with the surrender of British troops in the Revolutionary War.
Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Benjamin Banneker devised the original plans for the city of Washington, but those plans were held in abeyance until an architect was found.
Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed that a national design competition be held to determine the designer of the president's house and Congress' house--the "capitol," the term Virginians used for their statehouse.
The winner of this competition was an Irish architect named James Hoban. Through happenstance, he had met George Washington a year earlier in Charleston, S.C., when Washington was visiting personal friends. Little did they know that a year later they would be joining forces to bring Washington's vision to fruition.
The buildings Hoban designed directly reflected the 18th-century Georgian neoclassical style of the house of the Duke of Leinster in Dublin, Ireland. These designs stood out to Washington because he was fascinated by edifices located in Europe.
"In the last part of the eighteenth century, Americans and the Irish had the same political convictions along with shared strategies in economic development for their countries," according to William Seale, author of "The White House: An American Idea."
It is not known whether this played a role in Washington's choice of Hoban, but his plans were approved in the autumn of 1792 with changes forthcoming a year later.
To proceed with the implementation, the U.S. government planned to import workers from Europe, but recruitment yielded abysmal results. The government then sent out a request for 100 slaves to begin the arduous task of constructing the White House.
The laying of the cornerstone took place on Oct. 13, 1792.
There was a Fredericksburg-area connection to the original construction of the White House. In 1793, enslaved and free blacks from Virginia and Maryland began clearing the forest for the White House and Capitol, digging trenches and ditches and bringing sandstone piece by piece on boats from the Aquia Creek quarry in Stafford County.
They also began hauling lumber and other materials from White Oak Swamp in what is now King and Queen County, and placing cut stones for the walls of the White House.
According to Seale, "City commissioners of the project were concerned that this local source of sandstone couldn't provide the sufficient quantity necessary to produce the White House and the Capitol so they decided to downscale the size of the White House to keep the plans intact. Due to the reduction in size, the White House now in a sense was 'Americanized' because of the loss of the most obvious reference to the Leinster House, which was the high base, but Washington demanded to keep the ground dimensions of the enlarged plans."
Brickmasons worked hand in hand with the stone-masons to provide stability for the structure of the White House.
"The credit for carving the stone for the first White House belonged to two groups of Scottish immigrants who were stonemasons that faced a moratorium from the building industry in England due to the war with revolutionary France," according to Seale.
These two groups of immigrants consisted of members of the Masonic order in Washington and two brothers, John and James Williamson (who were not related to the chief stonemason, Collen Williamson, also from Scotland).
By 1795, Williamson and Hoban no longer saw eye to eye and Williamson was replaced by an English mason, George Blagdin. But it was another Englishman, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, along with Thomas Jefferson, Dr. William Thornton and James Hoban, who saw through the completion of the original White House and Capitol.
Once the construction was finished, the porous sandstone walls were coated with a mixture of lime, rice glue, casein and lead, giving the house its familiar color and name. The first president to inhabit the residence was John Adams in 1800.
Hoban and Latrobe were also responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of the White House after it was burned by the British during the war of 1812.
In this research, I came across some surprising similarities between the lineage of James Hoban and that of President-elect Barack Obama.
Hoban's lineage traces back to the province of Leinster; Obama's great-great-great-grandfather on his mother's side, Falmouth Kearney, also was from the province of Leinster.
Hoban was from County Kilkenny, and Falmouth Kearney was from nearby County Offaly.
It has been well documented that Obama is a distant cousin of President Harry Truman, Vice President Dick Cheney and former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill through their common ancestor, Mareen Duvall.
Obama's English and Scotch-Irish roots can be traced back to the 1650s to Duvall, a wealthy Huguenot merchant who immigrated to Maryland during the mid-17th century.
The fact that Obama's father was African brings into the equation the role of African-Americans in constructing the White House. Their work alongside the Scotch-Irish immigrants was pivotal in laying the foundation and molding the designs for what was variously called the President's Palace, the Presidential Mansion, the President's House, the Executive Mansion and, as it was to be named later by Theodore Roosevelt, the White House.
Each of these disparate groups contributed to crafting a building that will be home to one of its own after the swearing-in of our 44th president on Tuesday night.
President-elect Obama's African, English and Scotch-Irish background make him an anomaly in the sphere of American politics. His election will go down in the time-honored annals of the White House.