Cover image for An imperfect god : George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of America
Title:
An imperfect god : George Washington, his slaves, and the creation of America
Author:
Wiencek, Henry.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2003]

©2003
Physical Description:
404 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Language:
English
Contents:
Introduction : General's dream -- Home ground -- On the borderland -- The widow Custis -- A life honorable and amusing -- A scheme in Williamsburg -- So sacred a war as this -- A different destiny -- "A sort of shadowy life" -- The great escape.
ISBN:
9780374175269
Format :
Book

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E312.17 .W6 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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E312.17 .W6 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
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Summary

Summary

A major new biography of Washington, and the first to explore his engagement with American slavery When George Washington wrote his will, he made the startling decision to set his slaves free; earlier he had said that holding slaves was his "only unavoidable subject of regret." In this groundbreaking work, Henry Wiencek explores the founding father's engagement with slavery at every stage of his life - as a Virginia planter, soldier, politician, president and statesman.Washington was born and raised among blacks and mixed-race people; he and his wife had blood ties to the slave community. Yet as a young man he bought and sold slaves without scruple, even raffled off children to collect debts (an incident ignored by earlier biographers). Then, on the Revolutionary battlefields where he commanded both black and white troops, Washington's attitudes began to change. He and the other framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution, but, Wiencek shows, even beforehe became president Washington had begun to see the system's evil.Wiencek's revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington's determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility - as the oral history of Mount Vernon's slave descendants has long asserted - that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true.George Washington's heroic stature as Father of Our Country is not diminished in this superb, nuanced portrait: now we see Washington in full as a man of his time and ahead of his time.


Author Notes

Henry Wiencek, a nationally prominent historian and writer, is the author of several books. He lives with his wife and son in Charlottesville, Virginia


Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Thomas Jefferson is revered as our apostle of liberty; yet, when he died deeply in debt, he had made no provision for the emancipation of his slaves, and many were sold and families scattered. George Washington was conservative, authoritarian, and aristocratic in outlook and demeanor; yet, he strongly emphasized in his will that his slaves were to be freed, despite opposition from his family. Wiencek, a Virginia historian, studies Washington's moral struggle with the institution of slavery. As Wiencek's fascinating and often emotionally wrenching examination of Washington's private correspondence reveals, he expressed distaste for slavery as a young man. But like many similarly minded Virginia planters, he was not prepared to advocate emancipation. As commander of the Continental Army, Washington was deeply moved by the sight of black slaves and free men fighting alongside whites, which seems to have accelerated his personal opposition to what he regarded as a curse. Unfortunately, like Jefferson, his personal opposition could not spur him to lead a public campaign that might have spared the nation the horrors to come. --Jay Freeman Copyright 2003 Booklist


Publisher's Weekly Review

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. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

Having won the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, Wiencek here tracks Washington's change in attitude regarding slavery. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Choice Review

This book joins a growing list of scholarship that places the issue of slavery at the center of the founding of the US by tracing the pilgrimage of George Washington from a typical Virginia planter to an opponent of slavery who freed his slaves in his will. Using traditional historical writing mixed with a research travelogue, Wiencek largely succeeds in capturing the grand irony of whites demanding political freedom for themselves while buying and selling others like cattle. Especially useful is Wiencek's concept of a racial frontier in describing the mixed-race members of Washington's own family. Like Jefferson, Washington held blood relatives in bondage; unlike Jefferson, he does not appear to have fathered slave children. Until the end of his life, Washington was immersed in the business of slavery, which was the core of his economic and political status. Well researched, especially in financial and court records, the book can be read with profit alongside Paul Finkleman's Slavery and the Founders (1996) and Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom (CH, Jan'76). ^BSumming Up: Recommended. All levels and libraries. E. R. Crowther Adams State College


Table of Contents

Map of Washington's Virginiap. ix
Introduction: The General's Dreamp. 3
Chapter 1 Home Groundp. 15
Chapter 2 On the Borderlandp. 49
Chapter 3 The Widow Custisp. 67
Chapter 4 A Life Honorable and Amusingp. 87
Chapter 5 A Scheme in Williamsburgp. 134
Chapter 6 "So Sacred a War as This"p. 189
Chapter 7 A Different Destinyp. 250
Chapter 8 "A Sort of Shadowy Life"p. 279
Chapter 9 The Great Escapep. 311
Chapter 10 Mrs. Peter's Patrimonyp. 335
Chapter 11 "The Justice of the Creator"p. 344
Notesp. 363
Acknowledgmentsp. 391
Indexp. 393