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Imperfect God : George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America Unknown Binding – 2003

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Product Details

  • Unknown Binding
  • Publisher: Farrar Straus & Giroux.; BCE edition (2003)
  • ASIN: B003L2DFOC
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (61 customer reviews)

Customer Reviews

Yet we all must struggle with a great man who took part in a great injustice.
Jack Lechelt
It is entertaining as well as informative and I would recommend it to anyone interested in history.
I read this book over 4 years ago and it still sticks out in my mind to this day.
Michael L. Harwig

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

45 of 45 people found the following review helpful By "farmer4522" on January 4, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I received this book as a Christmas gift, and was afraid it might be a cynical and politically-correct portrait of George Washington. Far from it.
Washington was probably the only man who could have steered us between the rock of tyranny and the whirlpool of anarchy. And when his second term was up, "the man who refused to be king" got on his horse and returned to his beloved farm. Mount Vernon, however, was a house divided when it came to dealing with the corrupting institution of slavery. Martha Washington and the extended family had radically different views from the patriarch, who wanted to begin educating the slaves.
It is soul-wrenching to read of the missed opportunities to stymie slavery. The Founding Fathers had the power to bring our way of life into greater consonance with our sublime rhetoric of liberty. If George Washington had freed his slaves while in office, rather than after his death, it would have created an implacable precedent for his successors.
Thomas Jefferson was a genius (George Will called him the "Man of the Millenium"), but it's appropriate that his stock should go down a bit in recent years -- and Founding Fathers such as John Adams and George Washington should be re-discovered and re-treasured. Henry Wiencek has a fascinating section about Phillis Wheatley, poet and slave. The reader can only be stunned by Jefferson's hostility toward her, contrasted with Washington's openness.
The chapter on Williamsburg is superb. Jefferson called the colonial capital "the finest school of manners and morals that ever existed in America." Williamsburg had the first theater in the British colonies. The same royal governor who designed Williamsburg, earlier had laid out Annapolis.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Keith W. Oschman on March 9, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I expected a politically correct hit-piece on Washington, but was pleasantly surprised by what was a really helpful and honest look at the human being on the dollar. I'm just a high school history teacher in Eastern Kentucky, so I guess I'm not really qualified to judge historical accuracy, but it seemed like a pretty good book to me.
I especially appreciated how Wiencek made Washington's background understandable. One can better understand Washington when you see how far he had to move from his contemporaries--priveleged Virginia slaveowners--to even consider freeing his slaves. His growth and his blindness are both clearly and fairly presented. Washington seems more like a real human being, with good and bad like the rest of us.
As for hagiography, I saw none. I suppose if you are a Washington hater you will be disappointed--likewise if you really think that he never told a lie. But if you want to meet a real human being who, almost alone among his contemporaries, struggled greatly to rise above much (but not all) of their racism, this is a great book. The author's first person accounts were a nice touch for all but those who prefer strict dry-as-dust history writing.
There was much here that will help me to better teach American history.
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27 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed An Imperfect God because the writing itself was excellent. Although the author veered back and forth between first person observations to a more biographical stance, he managed to engage my attention with his well woven historical references and his ancedotal stories which had a very personal feel.
There were places where the author seemed to rehash stories told by others without adding anything new, and other places where his scholarship was fresh and his conclusions provoke conversation. Wiencek shows us repeatedly the paradox of a man who benefited by owning slaves and their labor, who came to a point of understand the the corrupting influence of absolute power slavery geve owners over the lives of others. Washington allowed arrangements between slaves and their owner/relatives within his own household which we would find untenable at best, and the subject of offensive jokes at worst. The story of Martha Washington's slave sister and Martha's son from her first marriage, which produced a child, is one which would be considered unpalatable in these days but was commonplace in the 17th century until the end of legal slavery. Yet, at the end of his life, he provided for the manumission of his slaves.
Clearly, Wiencek is not a revisionist historian, in the way that most traditional historians use the term. He is a revisionist in the best sense of the word, adding to our knowledge as well as encouraging us to look at viewpoints we might not have considered.
In the end, however, Wiencek's book provides a fresh look at a difficult time and convoluted relationships which have had scant acknowledgement outside the African American community. As our nation finally comes to grips with recent revelations that 20th century segregationist Strom Thurmon fathered a daughter with a black house maid in the early 20th century, we see that Thurmon's behavior is merely an extention of the behavior exhibited in the 1700s by other leaders. Timely, indeed.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Theo Logos on September 27, 2005
Format: Hardcover
The troubling and uncomfortable subject of America's slave owning founders is a difficult one with which to deal, and one that many Americans would prefer to ignore altogether. The idea that men we have come to view as great and noble could on the one hand stake their lives and honor on the cause of freedom and liberty for "all" men, and on the other exclude an entire race that they held in bondage for their own profit is a huge contradiction that does not easily fit into the ideal American mythos that we have learned to revere. Never the less, it is important to face it, own it as part of our history, and begin to understand the meaning and consequences of this stain on the American ideal.

In `An Imperfect God', Henry Wiencek examines this question by focusing on the foremost founder - George Washington. In Washington, he detects a clear evolution of thought. He shows us Washington the young man who seemingly accepted the institution without question; the mature man who clearly began to question it on moral and ethical grounds, and the old man who found it morally repugnant, and against the wishes of his family, emancipated all of his slaves in his will, making him unique among the slave owning founders.

Wiencek recreates the world that Washington was born into, showing us the context of his thought and action. He explains the social system of the great landed plantation owners, whose wealth and prestige were built upon human slavery. He is unsparing in his depiction of an institution that often led to shared blood ties between masters and slaves, so that many masters held in bondage their own children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters, and reveals that some of the slaves held at Mt. Vernon were blood relatives of Martha Washington.
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