Washington and slavery: a growing discomfort

November 23, 2003|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $26.

Henry Wiencek has not come to bury George Washington, but to strip away some of the myths and let us see the Founding Father in a clearer, more sober light. There was a time when this was unthinkable. Go to Baltimore's Mount Vernon Square and you will see a monument from the Golden Age of Washington worship.

He is dressed in robes, as if he were a Caesar, or a god.

We now know there are no gods among us, just men and women whose faults and imperfections render them less heroic but more human.

An Imperfect God is a fascinating and insightful work. It is the type of history and biography we need if we are to truly understand the world that gave birth to our country. Wiencek's research pulls in long overlooked letters and records, first-person encounters with family genealogists, a trip to Colonial Williamsburg to help trace our country's evolving understanding of slavery.

This highly regarded historian, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1999, places Washington squarely in the world of Virginia's 18th-century slaveholding aristocracy. All the big names are here: George Mason, the Fairfaxes, the Custis family Washington married into. They formed a moneyed elite whose holdings included thousands of acres and countless black and mixed-race men, women and children.

Slavery made their world possible. And it corrupted them, generation after generation. That the Founding Fathers could espouse the ideals of liberty and the rights of man while slaves tended to their needs is one of the more curious facts of history.

Washington lived in this world and enjoyed its benefits. Some of those famous false teeth probably were ripped from a slave's mouth. Yet, his beginnings set him apart. He spent much of his youth and early adulthood on the frontier as a surveyor and soldier. Though he became a bona fide slaveholder, complete with mansion -- Mount Vernon -- he grew uncomfortable with the institution.

The Washington of 1769 could organize a raffle of another man's property, including the slaves, and see it as a necessary business transaction to pay off the man's debt. Twenty years later, he couldn't stomach selling slaves. He even tried to stop members of his extended family from selling slaves. He failed.

But in his will, Washington freed every slave he could. He demanded that this occur after his wife's death. He also asked that some be educated and given a trade, while others be provided for in their old age. This set him apart.

On rare occasions, the high and mighty planters freed the children they had by slave women. Wiencek's investigations lead him to conclude that Washington most likely did not have children by his slaves. Something beyond blood ties motivated him.

His experiences in the Revolutionary War also helped change Washington's outlook. Black soldiers made up about one-fourth of the Continental Army at Yorktown and played a crucial role in the final assault on the British positions. He met Phyllis Wheatley and helped publish her works. Thomas Jefferson gave the poetess only contempt.

Through Washington, Wiencek puts to rest the lie that Virginia's 18th-century elite were merely men of their time, unable and unwilling to change the plight of their slaves. Yes, Washington was often constrained by politics and the mores of his time. Yes, he waited until he was in the grave, beyond the reach of ridicule and argument from his peers. But he did act. How he came to that decision makes for great reading.

M. Dion Thompson, an editor and reporter for 20 years, is currently on leave from The Sun. His first novel, Walk Like a Natural Man, was published in October.

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