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An Imperfect God

June 2024
1min read


As a young man, George Washington bought and sold slaves without scruple, but his experiences commanding black troops on Revolutionary battlefields began to reshape his thinking. In his final will he made provisions to free “all the Slaves which I hold in my own right,” the
only Founder to do so. In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus,
and Giroux, 416 pages, $30), Henry Wiencek tells the story of his moral transformation, weaving evidence from a wide range of sources into a compelling narrative.

Why did Washington wait so long to act? He himself owned
fewer than half of Mount Vernon’s 317 slaves; most belonged
to his wife’s estate. Unless he could induce Martha to free hers
at the same time, slave families would be separated, and Martha’s determination toprovide for her children and grandchildren seems to have outweighed her loyalty to her husband.
For the last 10 years of Washington’s life, he planned in secret, wary of a political backlash, worried that his wife and her heirs would try to stop him.

Did Washington father a child, West Ford, by a slave named Venus, as some Forddescendants have long believed? Wiencek concludes that Washington’s self-discipline and concern forhis reputation make it unlikely.

The hero’s flaw, if he had one, was his failure to free his slaves when he assumed the Presidency; he could have set a valuable precedent.

And he might have made a move even sooner. “The window
had opened at Valley Forge,” Wiencek writes, “when Washington was in desperate need of black men for the American
cause.” Two idealistic South Carolinians proposed recruiting
slaves to the Continental Army by promising them freedom
at war’s end, a scheme they hoped might eventually lead to
abolition. But Washington gloomily concluded it was already
too late to ask slaveholders to put national interests ahead of their own. “ThatSpirit of Freedom which at the commencement of this contest would have gladly sacrificedevery thing to the attainment of its object,” he wrote, “has long sincesubsided, and every selfish Passion has taken its place.”

Going over plantation records at Mount Vernon, Wiencek
found heartening evidence that the slaves at least were bettering their lot long before Emancipation. “Nails disappeared
by the barrel; the stable boy was stealing the horse feed;
Washington figured that half of his pigs were being stolen;
and so much seed was walking off that Washington ordered the seed to be mixed with sand soit would be too bulky and heavy to steal.”

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