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An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America Hardcover – Unabridged, November 15, 2003
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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.
Top customer reviews
It is fairly interesting how the author pours through seemingly uninteresting records of slave sales and otherwise uninteresting personal correspondences of Washington and his family in order to discover what Washington's true thoughts were and what he actually did when it concerned his slaves. Slavery was not a topic that Washington liked to talk about publicly, and he seemed to have thoughts both pro and con, so we're frequently left with no definite answer.
Furthermore, he seemed to part company with his wife on this subject! Martha, it appears, had no problem with the continuation of slavery, while Washington clearly did. In his will, Washington freed most of his slaves. We also discover that Washington had thoughts about doing so during his presidency. That would have set quite a precedent. It never happened, but things would have been different if it did.
In the first half, the author spends time explaining how slavery evolved in the United States. Slavery just didn't happen overnight. It evolved and changed over the years, finally becoming that brutal institution we all now recognize. These sections were quite interesting and well done, too.
I first read this book in hardcover, but had to have it on my Kindle to reread on a trip.
One of the most valuable issues that Wiencek discusses is the importance of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War. And the sad fact that their contributions, originally aknowledged, were gradually ignored. Alas, there is no reliable trend towards freedom and fairness.
The book explores the consequences and circumstances of slavery at the time, especially in Virginia, in great depth. He considers the tradeoffs between attempts to end slavery and maintain the union of all the colonies/states. He lays out this difficult questions without trying to give simplistic answers.
His view of Washington is nuanced, tracking changes in his attitudes over time and appreciating both his attempts to act according to his conscience and opportunities when he might have done more. In the end, I think that Wiencek has been quite fair and that my understanding of Washington, always one of my favorites among the Founders has been enormously enhanced.
The only trouble that I had reading the book is the depression brought on by the reminder that there is no bottom to the evils that people will inflict upon one another.
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