In the Footsteps of a General: George Washington’s Philadelphia
By RICH GRANT
Feb. 22 marks the birthday of United States’ very first president, George Washington, a stately man renowned for his honesty, integrity and idealistic vision of democracy. But while much is known about Washington in his later years, it was during his earlier life in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – the site which would eventually become the new nation’s first capital – that Washington’s character and ideas were molded.
A visit to the “City of Brotherly Love” offers not only insights into Washington the Man, but also into the history and formation of what has become the most powerful nation on Earth.
Here is a brief guide of Philadelphia seen through the eyes of the man who would become the Father of the United States:
George Washington was a Philadelphian. He lived more of his adult life in Philadelphia than anywhere else, except his beloved farm Mount Vernon in Virginia.
In 1776, Philadelphia was the second-largest city in the British Empire and had 6,000 impressive brick buildings. Miraculously, 2,000 of those 18th century brick buildings 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 private 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, or even sit in a church pew where he sat 225 years ago.
Here are several places to visit on an all-Washington weekend.
It was here, in May 1775, that Washington was appointed commander-in-chief of the Continental Army and began his public career with a self-effacing speech, telling Congress, “I, this day, declare with the utmost sincerity, I do not think myself equal to the command.”
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 with the inkwell that was used to sign the Declaration.
Portrait Gallery in the Second Bank of the United States
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, you can always walk into this free museum, where you are encouraged to turn the flash off your camera and take photos of the artwork.
Some of the most famous paintings of George and his wife 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.”
During the Second Continental Congress, George Washington took a table at City Tavern and dined there nightly.
What did he eat? The food was similar to ours, though much more difficult to prepare. Beef, chicken, hams, baked oysters, lamb, game and all varieties of fish were common dishes.
Banquets could offer up to 140 different courses. 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.
The first City Tavern was torn down in 1854, but working from the original plans, the National Park Service built an exact replica in 1975. The Tavern now serves lunch and dinner with a colonial inspired menu that includes West Indies pepperpot soup or ta Martha Washington-style Colonial turkey pot pie.
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 a museum with period furniture. The Washingtons celebrated their 20th anniversary here.
A letter to Ben Franklin from his daughter describes George dancing the night away in the second floor ballroom.
Martha didn’t dance, but George was an enthusiastic dancer and could go three hours without a break. He liked the company of ladies.
One woman 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.”
Christ Church and St. Peter’s
Washington was not particularly religious, but like all the people of the time, he attended church regularly.
He was a member of Christ Church; you can see his pew, No. 56-58, located next to that of Betsy Ross.
The impressive red brick Christ Church was the tallest building in America until 1830. Ben Franklin did some of his electricity experiments from the steeple.
The wood pews in Saint Peters have never been changed. You can actually sit in the Powel pew and you are also sitting in the only place in the world that will let you sit where George Washington once sat.
Elfreth’s Alley is the oldest continuously inhabited street in the United States.
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 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.
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 later homes had doors a foot higher that opened onto a small stone porch.
You can follow in the footsteps of Washington’s most famous military action just an hour north of the city.
Two state parks, one in Pennsylvania and one across the Delaware River in New Jersey, tell the dramatic story.
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, attacking New York with 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 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.
Films and exhibits trace the coming battle that saved the United States. 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.
Valley Forge is one of the most famous names associated with the Revolution – and one of the least understood.
No battles were fought here, but more than 2,000 men died here, from disease, cold and starvation.
The National Park Service has replicated samples of the 1,500 crude huts the men lived in while wintering here.
Washington made his headquarters at the Isaac Potts House.
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 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 each morning. The room is still decorated as it would have been at that time.
The Revolution dragged on nearly five years after Valley Forge. George wrote to Martha almost every day they were apart.
When Washington died, Martha 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.
For more information on Philadelphia, visit the city’s webpage.