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An Imperfect God
The journey from slave owner to emancipator
By Steven Martinovich
The Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings controversy of a few years ago forced many Americans to acknowledge an uncomfortable fact that they, and history, had long ignored in favor of simple hero worship. America's founding fathers, the very men who spoke so eloquently for and acted in the cause of freedom, were slave owners with all the evil of the institution that entails. How was it that such men were able to reconcile human bondage with the noble goals of the American Revolution? For many of them, including Jefferson, there was no dichotomy between slavery for some and freedom for others.
George Washington, however, represents a unique example as Henry Wiencek illustrates in An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America, a major study of America's first president and the issue of slavery. Wiencek was initially reluctant to embark on a biography of Washington but the Hemings story and old rumors that he may have fathered a child, named West Ford, with a slave caused him to reconsider. Utilizing records maintained at Mount Vernon and research conducted by African-American descendents of Washington's slaves, Wiencek paints a nuanced portrait of a complex man who began life as an unrepentant slave owner and finished it emancipating them.
Washington was a man born into plantation society and therefore never knew life without slavery. It was an institution born only a few decades before as a simple labor system that gradually took on a life of its own and become a necessity if plantation owners were to enjoy their privileged lifestyle. The more slaves a plantation owner possessed, the more land he could cultivate and the richer he could become. Washington was little different from his peers, buying and selling slaves -- men, women and children -- as necessary and considering them property that added to his wealth.
And yet he eventually became different from his peers. As Wiencek chronicles, Washington gradually became horrified by slavery. Although he banned black soldiers -- who made up substantial numbers -- from the Continental Army early in the war, he relented when he saw their determination to fight for the United States. Earlier in his life he cavalierly sold slaves without concern but in time refused to break up families when he did engage in trade. Some time around 1770 he hatched upon the idea that he would emancipate his slaves, a plan he followed through in his will when he astoundingly released 124 slaves and made provisions for their education and support.
An Imperfect God, however, isn't a paean to Washington. Wiencek rightly takes him to task for not doing enough to advance national policies to ban or limit slavery. He also takes aim at the inherent hypocrisy that Washington and the rest of the founders wallowed in with their grand proclamations of liberty while viewing their human slaves as property. Yet, he also lauds Washington as a man who evolved over life to come to view slavery as an inhuman institution, one that threatened the very foundation of his new nation. For millions of slaves, however, it could be argued that it was too little, too late. One can only imagine the type of America that could have resulted had Washington emancipated his slaves during his presidency and stood firm against demands that slavery be protected.
Wiencek has crafted a marvelous history of both Washington and race relations in early American history. Though some will likely look on An Imperfect God as another attempt to smear the reputation of one of America's greatest heroes, it remains an honest look at an incredibly complex man. Washington does not come at the end of Wiencek's story a villain, but rather as a more admirable figure for realizing -- even if belatedly -- the horrific sin that slavery was, something that most of his contemporaries did not. The Washington that Americans justifiably love is, thanks to Wiencek, now more human and noble.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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