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An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America Hardcover – November 15, 2003

4.4 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Was George Washington a dedicated slaveholder and, like Thomas Jefferson, a father of slave children? Or was he a closeted abolitionist and moralist who abhorred the abuse of African-Americans? In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America Henry Wiencek delves into Washington's papers and new oral history information to assemble a portrait of the first President of the United States that (while uneven in the telling) concludes that Washington supported emancipation by the time of his death.

To begin, Wiencek briefly addresses and dismisses the claim that Washington fathered a child with Venus, (a slave owned by Washingtong's brother, John Augustine). According to Wiencek, the President was likely sterile and such an affair would have been out of character for a man who prided himself on "self-control."

Wiencek's real focus in An Imperfect God is Washington's personal and political position regarding emancipation. The primary ground for Wiencek's argument is Washington's will and a selection of private letters that elaborate a plan for providing land and means for his freed laborers. The will in particular offers powerful evidence of Washington's true intentions, including explicit declarations manumitting Washington's slaves after his death. As Wiencek shows, the document punctuated a long period of equivocation.

An Imperfect God is an imperfect book. Wiencek's occasional first-person accounts of his field research, including discussions with descendants of Washington, feel strangely out of place in what is elsewhere a straightforward biography punctuated with digressions into Washington's larger historical context. Further, Wiencek sometimes dabbles in hagiography and is willing to excuse much in a man who was a slaveholder his entire life. Yet, Wiencek is right to point out the distinctions of Washington among the slaveholding Founding Fathers. Readers can only imagine along with Wiencek the national tragedy that could have been averted had Washington provided the great example of emancipation while in office. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

This important work, sure to be of compelling interest to anyone concerned with the nation's origins, its founders and its history of race slavery, is the first extended history of its subject. Wiencek (who won a National Book Critics Circle award for The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White) relates not only the embrangled "blood" history of Washington's family and that of the Custis clan into which he married, but also the first-person tale, often belabored, of his own search for facts and truth. What will surely gain the book widest notice is Wiencek's careful evaluation of the evidence that Washington himself may have fathered the child of a slave. His verdict? Possible, but highly improbable. Yet his detective work places the search on a higher plane than ever before. Also, while being a social history (unnecessarily padded in some places) of 18th-century Virginia and filled with affecting stories of individual slaves, the book stands out for depicting Washington's deep moral struggle with slavery and his gradual "moral transfiguration" after watching some young slaves raffled off. While by no means above dissimulation, even lying, about his and Martha's bond servants, by the time of his death in 1799 Washington had become a firm, if quiet, opponent of the slave system. By freeing his slaves upon Martha's death, he stood head and shoulders above almost all his American contemporaries. This work of stylish scholarship and genealogical investigation makes Washington an even greater and more human figure than he has seemed before. History Book Club main selection.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1st edition (November 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374175268
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374175269
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #409,123 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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