George Washington’s 1795 Thanksgiving celebrated liberty. But the chef behind the feast had none.
“On the third Thursday of February 1795, President George Washington proclaimed a day of national thanksgiving to thank God “for the Constitutions of Government which unite and by their union establish liberty.”
The second such proclamation by Washington, it called for a religious rather than a feasting holiday, and that day’s menu is unknown. As a regular night for the Congress dinners hosted by the president, it would have been presided over by Washington’s cook, Hercules Posey — a chef so notable that he was famous in his own time. Yet, the liberty Washington extolled was not something Posey enjoyed: He was enslaved.
Posey came to Washington about 1770 as forfeited property used to secure a debt owed Washington by his profligate friend and neighbor John Posey. Listed as a “ferryman” managing a cross-Potomac boat service owned by his former owner, Posey was probably about 16 when he came to Mount Vernon, Washington’s Virginia estate, which included five farms. The most famous was Mansion House Farm, known today simply as Mount Vernon. More than 300 captive people labored there as both skilled and unskilled workers. Most were owned by the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, who had died two years before she married Washington. By the time of his own death in 1799, Washington personally owned just over 50 human beings.
As president, Washington moved to New York City, then the federal capital, bringing a small contingent of enslaved people as household and livery staff. When the capital moved to Philadelphia, Washington, unsatisfied with hired cooks, added Posey to the group.
Known until 2018 only as Hercules, or as “Uncle Harkless” — a diminishing nickname that surely rankled — Posey would have directed the meal that was served on that Thanksgiving holiday.
Working in the kitchen of a fine household — much less a presidential one — would not have been easy. Meals were elaborate, multicourse affairs with an astounding variety of local and imported foods. As described by Rep. Theophilus Bradbury (Federalist-Mass.) in 1795, the average Thursday Congress dinner would have put any modern Thanksgiving feast to shame, featuring “an elegant variety of roast beef, veal, turkeys, ducks, fowls, hams, & puddings, jellies, oranges, apples, nuts, and almonds, figs, raisins, and a variety of wines and punch.”
Producing these meals meant a 12-to-16-hour workday with a variety of cooks and assistants working under Posey. Remarkably, the Washington household accounts tell us that these staff members would have been hired and White indentured laborers — all taking orders from an enslaved Black man.
And yet no one dared step out of line. In his biography of Washington, the president’s step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, called Posey an “artiste” who ran his kitchen with “iron discipline,” quick to punish those who disobeyed.
In the nearly three pages devoted to Posey, Custis described his carriage, skill, exacting demeanor and love of fine clothes, comparing him to a “veriest dandy.” While preparing the Congress dinners, Posey “shone in an all his splendor,” Custis wrote, and “his underlings flew in all directions to execute his orders.”
These dinners set the standard for presidential and diplomatic dining in the early republic. Washington was unconcerned with fancy foods yet fastidious about the niceties of the table, and Posey had the daunting task of presenting meals that featured the bountiful yet humble American fare the first president favored, as well as elegant preparations that spoke to his status. It was not uncommon for a Virginia ham to be featured alongside elaborate continental meat pastries. This showcasing of classical culinary skill and American bounty became the prototype for diplomatic dinners and executive functions thereafter.
Washington also had little patience for chit chat. Meals with “the General,” as he was commonly called, were strained affairs — all the more reason for the food to be exquisite enough to maintain diners’ focus.
Posey’s approach to commanding his kitchen set the stage for the American celebrity chef whose artistry was considered necessary in the most powerful American homes. As president, Thomas Jefferson was adamant that French-trained chef James Hemings, a man he had formerly enslaved, should be his cook. Hemings, who was by then free, declined.
Living between worlds
Posey, well-known in Philadelphia as “the General’s cook,” was allowed to come and go freely once his work was complete, and he returned at night. He also earned the equivalent of twice the average man’s annual wages selling kitchen slops with Washington’s permission, and some of this money was spent on a gold-headed cane. Washington also sent for Posey’s son, Richmond — not because the young man demonstrated any culinary ability but because his father wished it.
Once, when a prominent guest arrived late to dinner, Washington began the meal, although social norms would have dictated he wait, telling his guest, “My cook never asks whether the company has arrived, but whether the hour has come.”
Yet Posey lived in a netherworld between free and unfree. Washington kept him and the other enslaved members of the president’s house in bondage by circumventing the Pennsylvania abolition law that allowed them to petition for freedom if they remained in the state more than six months. The Washingtons regularly rotated people back to Virginia or, in a pinch, over the border to New Jersey — a slave state — to reset their time in the capital before six months were up. The only one allowed to overstay this time was Posey.
As a chef and a man, Posey honed his bold self-possession, despite being born into chattel slavery in Virginia. It’s likely he was strongly influenced by living in Philadelphia, where more than 90 percent of African Americans were free. Although captive in the president’s house, he moved about an abolitionist city with a growing and influential Black community, including such men as Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, abolitionists and founders of the Free African Society.
Most of all, Philadelphia was the greatest food city in America, a bustling international port positioned ideally to receive foods and culinary influence from the North, the South and the West Indies. Posey experienced a world of food artisanship and culinary creativity largely advanced by people of color, including Charles Sang, a celebrated confectioner; Polly Haine, famed for her pepperpot stand in the public market; Benjamin Johnson, an oysterman; numerous cake sellers and bread bakers; and, for a time, Hemings, who lived across the street from the president’s house.
Why Posey didn’t escape into the world of free Black Philadelphia has puzzled scholars for decades. When he finally self-emancipated, it was from Mount Vernon, on the president’s 65th birthday in 1797. He was seen once more in 1801, after Washington had died and freed him and the others he owned in his will. When New York Mayor Richard Varick offered to apprehend Posey for Mrs. Washington, she declined, claiming she had “found a white cook who answers just as well.” The truth was that Posey was a free man three times over: having remained in Philadelphia more than six months; by virtue of Washington’s will; and by his own agency.
In New York, Posey’s skill as a chef allowed him to build a life in a thriving free Black community. He lived there, working as a cook, until his death in 1812.
Nothing is known of the meals Posey cooked as a free man, but even if there were, it would be his triumphs in the presidential kitchen for which he would be remembered, especially those accompanying Washington’s most sweeping proclamations, such as his 1795 day of thanksgiving.
More than 200 years later, we are trying to square the heroic myths of America’s founding with the truths about its creators, who enjoyed and profited from the enslavement of African Americans such as Posey, who cooked feasts praising the idea of liberty while his own hands were shackled. It would be a half-century after Posey’s death before President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would change that equation for those like him. The same year, 1863, Thanksgiving became a regular national observance by Lincoln’s hand.
Ganeshram is executive director of the Westport Museum for History and Culture and author of a novel about Hercules Posey, “The General’s Cook.”