I read that Michelle Obama is telling school children visiting the White House about how slaves built it, which, of course, is not true. By and large, slaves cut and moved lumber, moved the stone, probably didn't put it in place. They did none of the skilled work, which is what "building" is all about. I just built a little one room cabin, not the guys from Route 37 Lumber who delivered the building materials, nor, much as he insists otherwise, did my son, who helped me move rafters and lay joists. But then there are James Hoban's slaves, Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel who Hoban listed on the White House payrolls as carpenters.
Hoban was a young Irish carpenter/architect who emigrated to Charleston, South Carolina, and soon impressed the elite of that town. When George Washington made a southern tour in 1791 (he only made two tours during his presidency and, you guessed it, the other was a northern tour) he was introduced to Hoban. A year later after a design competition for the President's house was announced, Hoban came to Philadelphia, where the federal government then sat, and submitted a design that Washington approved and he thought Hoban just the man to supervise construction of the building. Washington wrote to the three commissioners in charge of the project that Hoban "has been engaged in some of the first buildings in Dublin, appears a master workman, and has a great many hands of his own." So Hoban returned to Charleston, packed up his things and moved to the federal district on the Potomac.
Hoban brought along some assistants, his fellow Irishmen Peirce and Redmond Purcell. A few years later when the Scot and English carpenters and masons in Washington made a concerted effort to run the Purcells, if not Hoban, out of the as yet unbuilt town, one of their critics described that dark day when a sloop came up the Potomac bringing the Purcells and a boat load of liquor. There was no mention of slaves, and Hoban's and the Purcells' slaves were part of the current controversy. The Scot mason Collen Williamson, who Hoban got replaced as supervisor of masons, dismissed the skills of the slaves Hoban used on the project; six of them were could not do the work of one white worker. At the end of 1797 the commissioners ordered Hoban's and the Purcells' slaves dismissed, and in the process categorically ordered that no "Negro Carpenters or apprentices be hired at either of the public Buildings and that no Wages be allowed after that day to any white Apprentices without an especial order of the Board."
All to say, if the hated Purcells weren't accused of bring hated slaves up from South Carolina, then maybe Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel didn't come up with Hoban from Charleston. The 1790 census doesn't seem to help. There is no "James Hoban" listed in Charleston, but "Purcell & Hoburn" are listed seemingly as a firm and noted as consisting of 3 white male adults, 1 white male under 16, 2 white females and 2 slaves, which doesn't account for the 4 slave carpenters Hoban had in Washington nor Peirce Purcell's slave carpenter Tom, and certainly doesn't suggest builders relying on slaves to do their work. Those white females associated with Purcell & Hoburn likely required house servants not carpenters.
In documents in the National Archives, I've seen hints at another way they might have wound up working in the White House. The commissioners began hiring slave laborers in April 1792. In late 1792, George Washington's nephew sold some lumber to the commissioners that came from his estate in Virginia. He asked the commissioners to pay for the slaves he hired to do the work, which involved some cutting the trees and others, called carpenters, who squared and probably sawed up the trees into planks. At the same time Uncle George was looking to hire a slave carpenter for work on Mount Vernon, and his nephew said the slave carpenters had all gone to work in the federal city. The only carpenters listed as working in the city belonged to Hoban and the Purcells, and there wasn't much other building going on. Work had not started on the Capitol and there was precious little private building. And there was an impediment to hiring out Virginia slaves to work in Maryland -- it was at against Virginia law in 1792. The final bit of evidence suggesting that Hoban bought slaves when he came to the city is that much to his frustration all the men sawing wood, probably hired slave laborers, drifted away before Christmas leaving the sawing at a stand. So what might Hoban have done to keep his saw pit going? Buy the slaves before they drifted back to Virginia.
I know this is getting involved, but history is not an easy answer. Slaves just didn't materialize to build things or saw lumber. Not that my scenario is necessarily true. No one mentioned that Hoban bought slaves, just as no one mentioned that he brought slaves with him from South Carolina. But can't we assume that when Washington mentioned as a bonus for hiring Hoban that he had many "hands" in South Carolina, that he meant slaves? Unfortunately, though he owned many slaves, Washington did not think much of their abilities. On February 16, 1794, he wrote from Philadelphia to his overseer William Pearce about his own slaves: "It appears to me, that to make even a chicken coop, would employ them all week; buildings that are run up here in two or three days (with not more hands) employ them a month or more."
Personally, I think that observation attests to the sagacity of Washington's slaves. They knew that Washington got their work cheaply, which, of course, is why Washington was eager to hire more from his nephew rather than confront free workers who had to be paid. In another post, I'll try to tell what I think Peter, Ben, Harry and Daniel did in the White House. Those eager to read more can go to my web pages The Use of Slaves to Build and Capitol and White House 1791-1801