An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry WiencekA 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 fathers 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, Washingtons attitudes began to change. He and the other framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution, but, Wiencek shows, even before he became president Washington had begun to see the systems evil.
George Washington and Slavery
A census of the slaves at Mount Vernon made the summer before George Washington's death indicated that nearly two-thirds of the plantation's adult slaves were married. These marriages were acknowledged by both the slave community and George Washington, who acknowledged the information in his note keeping. This sacred ground was used as a cemetery for slaves and a few free blacks who worked at Mount Vernon in the 18th and 19th centuries. Slaves at Mount Vernon typically worked a six-day week where Sunday was generally the day off for everyone on the estate. Enslaved persons at Mount Vernon found a variety of ways to fill their time off from work.
George Washington and the Slave Who Got Away
George Washington owned enslaved people from age eleven until his death, when his will promised his slaves freedom. His actions and private statements suggest a long evolution in his stance on slavery, based on experience and a possible awakening of conscience. Born in , Washington came of age in a time when large-scale tobacco planting, carried out by enslaved labor , dominated the economy and society of colonial Virginia. Washington made no official public statements on slavery or emancipation as a Virginia legislator, as a military officer, or as president of the United States. As a young man he acted as most of his slaveholding peers did—making full and lawful use of slave labor, buying and selling slaves , and even raffling off a debtor's slaves, including children, to recoup a loan. His marriage brought many slaves under his control, but he did not legally own these "dower" slaves.
There are others who believe that some of these men are unworthy of our attention because they owned slaves, Washington, Jefferson, Clark among them, but not Adams. They failed to rise above their time and place, though Washington but not Jefferson freed his slaves. But history abounds with ironies. These men, the founding fathers and brothers, established a system of government that, after much struggle, and the terrible violence of the Civil War, and the civil rights movement led by black Americans, did lead to legal freedom for all Americans and movement toward equality. In I was a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin. The History Club there asked me to participate in a panel discussion on "Political Correctness and the University. I remarked to her that when I began teaching I had required students to read five or six books each semester, but I had cut that back to three or four or else the students would drop my course.