Upon the Ruins of Liberty
Slavery, the President's House at Independence National Historical Park, and Public Memory
Publication: Feb 17
Publication: Dec 14
Publication: Dec 14
6 x 9
3 tables, 5 line drawings, 6 halftones, 1 maps
A behind-the-scenes look at the development of the memorial to slavery in Independence MallRead the Preface and Chapter 1 (pdf).
The 2002 revelation at Philadelphia’s Independence National Historical Park that George Washington kept slaves in his executive mansion in the 1790s prompted an eight-year controversy about the role of slavery in America's commemorative landscape. When the President's House installation opened in 2010, it became the first federal property to feature a slave memorial.
In Upon the Ruins of Liberty, Roger Aden offers a compelling account that explores the development of this important historic site and the intersection of contemporary racial politics with history, space, and public memory. Aden constructs this engrossing tale by drawing on archival material and interviews with principal figures in the controversy—including historian Ed Lawler, site activist Michael Coard, and site designer Emanuel Kelly
Upon the Ruins of Liberty chronicles the politically charged efforts to create a fitting tribute to the place where George Washington (and later John Adams) shaped the presidency as he denied freedom to the nine enslaved Africans in his household. From design to execution, the plans prompted advocates to embrace stories informed by race and address such difficulties as how to handle the results of the site excavation. Consequently, this landmark project raised concerns and provided lessons about the role of public memory in shaping the nation's identity.
"Upon the Ruins of Liberty is an eye-opening book that tells the untold story of President George Washington’s house and the slaves he kept there. Well-written, illuminating, and provocative, it will cause us to reconsider the history we’ve all been taught—this is a work of importance."
—Elijah Anderson, Yale University, author of The Cosmopolitan Canopy and Code of the Street
"With Upon the Ruins of Liberty , Roger Aden has given us a stirring account of the eight-year struggle to memorialize the President’s House, the executive mansion at Independence National Historical Park that served our first and second presidents and their families when Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. In exploring the multi-sided controversy about whose history should be told—and how to tell it—Aden invites readers to think about how Americans argue, protest, and search for compromise when plans are launched to reconstruct the past in public places. Out of this knotted controversy came the first slave memorial on a federal site, along with the sobering message that freedom and slavery were closely entwined as the new nation took form. If this muddles the schoolbook celebration of Washington ushering in a republic of liberty, it affirms the complicated, if unruly, process that today's democracy demands in doing public history."
—Gary B. Nash, Director of the National Center for History in the Schools, UCLA, and author of The Liberty Bell
"This book will attract scholars of preservation, social history, material culture, and architectural history, as well as general readers. The author teaches communication studies and put his knowledge of that subject to good use as he analyzed one of the most controversial commemorative projects of our time: the ruins of the President's House at Philadelphia's Independence National Historical Park (INHP).... Communicating history to the public is an important, often-difficult challenge for historians and preservationists—made no easier when contemporary racial politics are part of that history. The story of the President's House demonstrates that attempts to build public memory and to create an inclusive national narrative tell Americans as much about who they are now as it tells them about who they were then—and what they might become."
—The Journal of American History
"Roger C. Aden’s account of this complex story focuses on its meanings and ambiguities within the context of public history. He ably describes the symbolic purposes of the park, which constructs a patriotic, even edenic vision of the nation’s founding. In the view of park officials, Aden argues, acknowledgment of the President’s House would sully a pristine picture. Slavery poisons the apple and the presence of the first president’s chattel on the landscape of the nation’s birth would be bitter fruit indeed."
"Upon the Ruins of Liberty examines the important and interwoven issues of slavery, the early American presidency, U.S. history, public memory, and the politics around what constitutes democracy and how we implement it. The author provides an engaging account of the development of an important historic site freighted with contemporary racial politics and refracted through history, space, and public memory. Aden shows how the eight-year struggle to memorialize the President’s House helped bring to light both the story of the house and the slaves who were kept there. Aden argues that through this process, lessons were provided showing how the role of public memory helps shape the nation’s identity."
—The AAG Review of Books
"Upon the Ruins of Liberty is a valuable addition to the scholarship on the history of slaveholding in the early republic and offers readers a linguistic perspective that will be useful to those interested in a nuanced analysis of the different ways in which people communicate about what sites of collective memory represent and how these sites should be interpreted."
—The Public Historian
"Roger Aden’s rhetorically focused account of the controversy over a site of slaveholding in an iconic national park in Philadelphia... show(s) us the complexities of analyzing these projects and the cultural, political, and economic conditions in which they are embedded.... (M)any of his summaries of the big ideas in scholarly thinking about history, place, and memory (e.g., that memorials and historic sites are constructed through sometimes-contradictory messages) are clear and potentially useful for those not familiar with the field of memory studies."
" Aden recounts the saga of Philadelphia’s President’s House monument and its problematic commemoration from 2002 through 2011. (Aden's) prose shifts often enough between narrative and exegesis to keep readers interested.... He scours newspapers, scholarly books and journals, travel blogs, visitor studies, NPS reports, and his own interviews with various stakeholders for any and all indication of how people have responded to the President’s House project since its inception.... This is important work that hedges against the tendency to study people who build monuments rather than those for whom they are built."
—Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography
"(T)he dominant narrative at the President's House installation when it opened in 2010 was the story of slavery. In his detailed and insightful study of the project, Roger C. Aden answers the pressing question: 'how did it happen?'.... Some of the book's most valuable contributions lie in its documentation of 'behind-the-scenes' details.... Overall this book offers a comprehensive analysis of... this contentious project. Aden locates his case study within a larger exploration of public memory, especially as it relates to the uniquely challenging topic of U.S. slavery."
—The Griot: The Journal of African American History
"Aden seeks to use the (President's House) memorial as a lens for viewing the nation’s collective memory in publicly recognized spaces and places of memorialization. He draws on extensive archival material, interviews with many of those involved in the controversy, popular media accounts, and aspects of critical theory in his analysis. It is a complex story, and Aden documents it meticulously. It is also a story of vital interest to a wide range of scholars and students in history, cultural studies, public history and preservation, interpretation, education, and beyond." —Journal of American History
Table of Contents
- Discovering the Truth: The Revelation of Ugly History
- Re-collecting the Past: The Complexity of Public Memory
- Displacing the Inconvenient: The Incomplete Story of Liberty
- Honoring the Ancestors: The Quest for Acknowledgment
- Shaping the Place: The Design Competition
- Revealing the Foundations: The Excavation of the Site
- Telling the Stories: The Opening of the Installation
- Continuing the Conversation: The Legacy of the President’s House