Gary Hoggatt's Reviews > An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

An Imperfect God by Henry Wiencek
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's review
Apr 17, 12

bookshelves: biography, all-non-fiction, american-revolution-era, history-bio-18th-century
Read in January, 2012

I've recently read James Thomas Flexner's Washington: The Indispensable Man and Joseph J. Ellis' His Excellency: George Washington, two excellent single volume biographies of our first president, and still found myself wanting to learn more about our first president. Washington is such an interesting and important figure in American history that many biographies have been written focusing on particular aspects of his life. In 2003's An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, Henry Wiencek tackles what is probably the toughest part of Washington's life to understand.

Wiencek takes the reader through Washington's evolving attitudes about slavery, from his Virginia planter class origins, to Washington's eye-opening experience with African-America soldiers in the Revolution, to the dilemmas caused by his ownership of slaves while president, and finally to Washington's plan to free his slaves in his will, a plan that he was so sure would be met with intense opposition from his family - including Martha - that he spoke of it with none of them and had to lay out his wishes very carefully and explicitly, for fear of his heirs finding loopholes.

In addition to Wiencek's direct focus on Washington, he does an excellent job of setting the scene by thoroughly describing slavery in 18th century Virginia. He covers slave auctions in the capital of Williamsburg, the open secret behind mulatto slaves, escape attempts, conditions on the plantations, and more. While at times he wanders a bit off of Washington himself, it serves the overall purpose of giving the reader an understanding of Washington's time well.

Wiencek usually keeps the examples directly relevant to Washington though, from pre-Revolution newspaper ads from Washington about escaped Mt. Vernon slaves or the auctioning of slaves belonging to a planter who owed Washington money, to the escape and attempted recovery of Martha's personal attendant Oney Judge, to the typical Virginian attitudes towards slaves exhibited by Washington's relatives - attitudes so repugnant that they reinforced Washington's determination to free his slaves, rather than see them in his relatives hands.

Slavery is not an easy subject to read about, and it's hard to read about some of the repulsive aspects of it that Wiencek writes about - especially when it's Washington himself involved. This is by no means a "fun" book. It is, however, very enlightening, and shines a light on the darkest part of our American heritage.

I highly recommend An Imperfect God to anyone with an interest in American history, particularly as it relates to George Washington or slavery. Wiencek handles a very difficult subject well, and does an excellent job of chronicling Washington's journey from a typical Virginian planter to becoming the only slave-holding Founding Father to emancipate his slaves.

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