On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama had the audience riveted with her speech.
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” she said. “And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all of our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States.”
But Michelle Obama is not the first FLOTUS to remark on who built the White House. In 1800, shortly after arriving in Washington to take up residence in the unfinished President’s House, Abigail Adams wrote to her uncle, Cotton Tufts, about the construction of the capital city and the new executive palace:
The effects of Slavery are visible every where; and I have amused myself from day to day in looking at the labour of 12 negroes from my window, who are employd with four small Horse Carts to remove some dirt in front of the house. the four carts are all loaded at the same time, and whilst four carry this rubish about half a mile, the remaining eight rest upon their Shovels, Two of our hardy N England men would do as much work in a day as the whole 12, but it is true Republicanism that drive the Slaves half fed, and destitute of clothing…whilst the owner waches about Idle, tho his one Slave is all the property he can boast, Such is the case of many of the inhabitants of this place.
—Abigail Smith Adams to Cotton Tufts, 28 November 1800 (Source: National Archives)
Mrs. Adams found slavery morally distasteful and woefully inefficient. Although her husband, John Adams, had never enslaved any people, Abigail Smith Adams had grown up in a slaveholding household. She later became an outspoken opponent of slavery.
After the White House burned in 1815, it was rebuilt, again using enslaved labor. Read more about the history of slavery and the early presidency in the forthcoming In the Shadow of Liberty: The Hidden History of Slavery, Four Presidents, and Five Black Lives (September 20, 2016-Now available.)