BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
An Imperfect God: George Washington, his slaves and the creation of America
, July 3, 2004
AN IMPERFECT GOD:
George Washington, his slaves and the creation of America
By Henry Wiencek
Rec. price: $59.95The end of the 18th century saw the emergence of the United States of America. Although founded on the proposition that all men are created equal and have the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, this new nation retained the institution of slavery.
At the heart of this paradox was George Washington, commander of the Continental Army and first president of the United States of America, who fought for and led the new nation while at the same time owning slaves.An Imperfect God
re-examines Washington's life and career with a focus upon his evolving attitudes towards slavery, which culminated in his decision to free his slaves in his will and to provide for them in such a way that they would have the skills and abilities to support themselves as free people.
Wiencek begins his analysis of Washington by discussing a dream he had in May 1799, months before his death - a dream which spurred him to re-draft his will, believing that his death was imminent.
Integral to this will were provisions to free all of his slaves. While it was not unknown for a master to free a few faithful slaves in his will, such a move was very unusual, as slaves were considerable economic assets for their masters and their labour was deemed necessary for the plantations.
The author then examines key events in Washington's life.
Born in 1732 into the Virginian oligarchy, with close family ties to the leading families, after being a surveyor and pursuing a military career, Washington secured the wealth he needed to pursue the life of a gentleman planter by his marriage to the wealthy widow, Martha Custis.
Not only did he own his own slaves, but he was personally responsible for those of his wife's family which her children were destined to inherit.
Washington was renowned as a fair master. But the lengthy hours of work he demanded of his slaves and the paucity of clothing he issued to them - although they would be judged harshly today - were regarded as acceptable then.
As a slave-owner he bought and sold slaves, and at one stage oversaw a slave lottery, whose proceeds were used to clear another planter's debts. Such sales often resulted in the permanent breaking up of slave families.
Perhaps another insidious aspect of slavery was the plight of half-castes, products of liaisons between masters and their female slaves. With some exceptions, the children of such unions remained slaves and were often deliberately sold off by masters. Such slaves existed in Washington's circle. However, Wiencek disputes that West Ford was Washington's illegitimate mulatto son.
The earliest indications of a change in Washington's attitude occurred in 1775, the year the first shots of the War of Independence were fired, when he resolved not to separate slave families through selling them.
Wiencek's analysis of the War of Independence focuses on the issue of Negroes - free and slaves - in the Continental Army. A shortage of troops made their recruitment a military necessity. John and Henry Laurens of South Carolina proposed that slaves be armed in return for their freedom. Although slaves had already been enrolled, Washington did not give his support to the proposal as he feared the effect it would have on slaves still in bondage.
While gradually moving towards the decision to free his own slaves upon his death, such magnanimity did not extend to the slaves who were the patrimony of his wife's family. Washington nevertheless made concerted efforts to recover one of his wife's runaway slaves, Ona Judge. Similarly, when he resided at New York and Philadelphia, he took steps to circumvent state laws that would have enabled slaves to obtain their freedom after continuous periods of residency.
Although he remains one of the great leaders in the annals of Western civilisation - and his decision to free his slaves was courageous for its time - Washington was still a product of his age and Virginian society. Some of the most interesting sections of Wiencek's book are the descriptions of this society.
Wiencek argues that Washington did not free his slaves during his life as he feared members of his family and close confidants would have exerted considerable pressure on him to prevent him.
Given the almost godlike status he enjoyed, it is tempting to speculate on the impact such a decision, particularly during his term of office as president, would have had upon the institution of slavery.