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An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America

4.03  ·  Rating details ·  911 ratings  ·  82 reviews
An Imperfect God is a major new biography of Washington, and the first to explore his engagement with American slavery

When George Washington wrote his will, he made the startling decision to set his slaves free; earlier he had said that holding slaves was his "only unavoidable subject of regret." In this groundbreaking work, Henry Wiencek explores the founding father's
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Paperback, 432 pages
Published September 3rd 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published November 15th 2003)
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Average rating 4.03  · 
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 ·  911 ratings  ·  82 reviews


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Clif Hostetler
Jan 14, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
This book is a well researched history that focuses on George Washington and his slaves. The book title suggests that it contains smudges on Washington's character because of slavery. Well, it does that, but to me it showed him to be a principled man in a difficult environment. Sure, he was human and enjoyed the luxury of living in a big house with slave servants. But this book shows that he gave a lot of thought to how his slaves could be freed at a time when all of his immediate family, his ...more
Jerome
May 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fairly good book on Washington and his involvement in the institution of slavery. Wiencek writes well and weaves a good story. Although the average American likes to approach history with pre-conceptions, romantic ideas, and inflated rhetoric, Wiencek approaches the issue in a restrained manner.

As a young man, Washington accepted the institution of slavery, and it seems that he took a certain pleasure in the power over others that his status gave him. As he aged and matured, Washington
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Caroline
Jun 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-history
Henry Wiencek has made the study of the Founding Fathers' relation to slavery something of a speciality, and this book is another excellent example. I have also read his book about Thomas Jefferson and his slaves, a book equally as interesting, if far more controversial!

To his credit, however, unlike Jefferson George Washington did not just talk about his disregard for slavery; he also acted upon it, albeit posthumously. Knowing he would face a battle amongst his own family and hampered by legal
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Lobstergirl
Wieneck's book is a pleasing combination of close reading of historical archives and court records along with the author's first-person intrusions into the narrative, as when he goes to Mount Vernon to reenact for himself the type of labor the slaves would have done according to Washington's strict time management requirements, and to Colonial Williamsburg where actors portraying slaves and free blacks hold conversations among the tourists, to sometimes poignant effect. He finds that Washington ...more
Judy
Feb 09, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book examines George Washington's evolving views about slavery over his lifetime. Washington was born into a slave society and both he and his wife, Martha, not only owned slaves, but were genetically related to slaves with whom they interacted (including Martha's much younger half-sister). However, Washington's attitudes toward slavery began to change during the Revolutionary War when he commanded both white and black troops and was impressed by the loyalty and bravery of the black ...more
Anne Hawn Smith
Mar 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I thought this biography of George Washington was excellent. Too often we think of famous people, especially statesmen, as having a set of ideals which are static and consistent throughout their lives. Wiencek has explored Washington's changing attitudes concerning slavery. He was raised with the instution of slavery and accepted it as the way his society operated, but Wiencek believes that as he commanded black regiments in the Revolution he began to see them as human beings and began to see ...more
Florence
Mar 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The concept of individual liberty for all was new to the world when the founding fathers created the United States of America. It quickly became evident that the new country, born in idealism, had a fatal flaw; that of slavery. The most revered leader of all, George Washington, was a slave owner. Recognizing slavery as the morally repugnant institution that it was, Washington struggled with his conscience for many years and left written evidence that he had searched for a politically and ...more
Jim
Sep 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition

One of the least discussed, and most misunderstood aspects of George Washingtons life, was his relationship to the institution slavery in general, and to his own slaves in particular. For those inclined to a sympathetic view, the portrayal of Washington as a man who treated his slaves better than most and who eventually freed them at his death, is all they need to know. For those inclined to the opposite view, the fact that Washington never emancipated his slaves during his lifetime, was not
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Lois
This is well written and very interesting. It's a bit dated as so much more has come to light about say Oney Judge. None the less readable and interesting.
The author considers George Washington to have not been racist and a benevolent slave owner. Which is a bit like a compassionate rapist. A oxymoron.
He then follows up with GW violating the Federal Slave Act as sitting president. Followed by detailed methods he used to oppress the Enslaved Peoples on his many estates.There is no benevolence in
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Carolyn Fagan
Feb 04, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fascinating read. Full of interesting details about not only George Washington, but colonial Virginia. The premise is that because George Washington freed his slaves upon his death, it means that his POV on slavery has radically changed. I'm not sure I'm buying some of Wiencek's hypothesis, but it was still an interesting read.
Wesley Wade
May 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I wish this book was required reading in US history classes across the country.

Let me put this in perspective for you, I am a black male and part of the Millennial generation, which basically means I have a college degree, too much debt, and a weak foundation in history; it has been my job to change the latter two over the past few years. It also means, before reading this book, I prescribed to the Dave Chappelle theory concerning the "founding fathers," which instructs me to run the opposite
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Kate
Jun 18, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I can't decide quite how I feel about this book. I think it may have been more interesting for me if I was more knowledgeable about American history. However, it was an interesting perspective, George Washington as conflicted slaveholder, on a historical figure that I had seen as relatively one-dimensional. I felt like the author was a bit too sympathetic to Washington, typically assuming the best of intentions, but he did not shy away from showing the reality of owning slaves and Washington's ...more
Robert Clay
Aug 01, 2007 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: interested in early America and slavery
A very educational book about slavery in early America, examined by a study of Washington's relation to the peculiar institution. Washington went through a transformation over the course of his life, to the end that he freed and made provisions for his slaves in his will; the author objectively looks both at Washington's shortcomings and virtues in this matter. Some of the earlier chapters seemed a bit sporadic in their focus, but most of the book was well-written; I found the chapter on ...more
Alanna Smith
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really enjoyed understanding more about George Washington and how his views on slavery evolved throughout his lifetime. I feel like as our country becomes more and more divided, Washington is also becoming a divisive figure: people hate him for owning slaves, or they brush aside the fact by saying he was simply a product of his times. It's nice to finally get into it and figure out how I feel about Washington's life.

And I will say-- this book actually left me admiring Washington even more.
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Sandi Ludwa
Mar 29, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
It took me a while to finish as I set it aside with travel and finishing my next book. This book was a bit different and I enjoyed the revelation that old George had a son with a slave. I knew he was not the stoic George we see in photos and was a decent man to his slaves, soldiers, and the public but never envisioned that he, like many others, had relations with slaves. Guess I am a romantic, and like to believe the George and Martha love story.

Wiencek does a great job in letting the reader
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Alan
Perhaps nothing illustrates the paradox of the practice of slavery in the United States existing alongside the rhetoric of liberty than George Washington's role as a slave owner. Samuel Johnson famously asked "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" Henry Wiencek offers an eye-opening examination of the changing views that Washington held on the subject and the path he took to the full emancipation (though only upon his death) of the enslaved men, ...more
Keith
Jan 05, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was originally leaning to three stars on this one. Earlier chapters of the book made me feel that the author took the god reference in the title too seriously, leaning way to close to hagiography. He redeemed himself, I feel, in the second half of the book, where close reading of archival sources makes a strong argument for Washingtons complicated relationship with slavery. ...more
Mēgan
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Based on the title, I braced myself for a founding fathers fanatic who deifies the nation's first president. Luckily, I was entirely wrong. The writing style is palatable, the subject matter peppered with objective observations and the whole thing heavily researched and referenced. As far as biographies go, this one was enjoyable.
Ashley
Feb 18, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting account of GW's personal transformation on slavery, a bit of a slog at times with a lot of esoteric historical discussion but writer includes little known details from primary accounts
Gail
Dec 07, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 5-star-books
This biography of George Washington focuses on his views of slavery and his relationship with his slaves. I hadn't realized that he was the only founder who actually arranged to free his slaves--further confirmation that he is indeed the greatest American.
Andrew Rowen
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Extraordinary research and perception, explaining not only Washington but the daily life of master/slave relationships.
Backoff51
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another top notch book on Washington.
Bobbie
Apr 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read. A well researched book that gives great information about our first President and his thoughts and dealings with slaves.
Jennifer M.
Mar 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Entertaining and engaging. This kept my interest all the way through. I love reading the footnotes and end notes and I found those just as interesting as the main text.
Tyler Kuhn
Jun 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a fantastic perspective on the life of our first president. I appreciate that the book investigates and focuses on Washington's slave ownership and the perspective from the time.
Rose Ingberman
Jan 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Really liked this (obviously, from the stars!). Well-written and I learned a lot I didn't know about Washington and how his attitude about slavery developed through the years.
Ellen
Jun 21, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I liked the conversational style of the writing but was annoyed that items of note/interest were mentioned and sometimes never really explained.
Louis Phillips
Jan 20, 2018 is currently reading it  ·  review of another edition
The multi generational epithet applies, he kept slaves. But he set them free upon his death. Though that doesnt make it right. I think this book gets it right. It's easy to join the cliche spouting groups. This man makes him personal I like that. Reading.
Elizabeth
Think back on your elementary school history lessons. Other than the colorful (and notably bloodless) pictures of Gettysburg and the clean, proper descriptions of the Continental Congress, what do you know about our Founding Fathers as people? Most of the things we think about them are fiction, or glorified attributes. The truth of the matter is that they were tradesmen, farmers, philanderers, rebels, subversives, and, most notably, slave owners.

Most elementary school teachers somehow skip that
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Samir Salifou
Feb 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: scholarly
Henry Wiencek has produced another masterpiece with his book An Imperfect God: George Washington, his Slaves, and the Creation of America. The author analyses the paradox that existed between the ideals of freedom that the framers believed in so fervently, and the evils of slavery during the creation of the United States of America. In so doing Wiencek is still able to avoid the allure of judging the framers through a modern moral lens. He avoids the caricature that some historians create by ...more
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Henry Wiencek is a prominent American historian and editor whose work has encompassed historically significant architecture, the Founding Fathers, various topics relating to slavery, and the Lego company. In 1999, The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White, a biographical history which chronicles the racially intertwined Hairston clan of the noted Cooleemee Plantation House, won the ...more

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“The failure of emancipation to take root during the war is one of the great What ifs of the Revolution. Another is: What if blacks had not fought for the American cause? What if a slave had not saved Colonel William Washington’s life, with the result that his cavalry charge dissolved and the Battle of Cowpens had become a British victory? As the historian Thomas Fleming speculates, both North and South Carolina might well have gone over to the British. What if Glover’s regiment of Massachusetts sailors had not had the manpower to complete the evacuation of Washington’s army before the fog lifted in New York—and Washington himself, waiting for the last boat, had been captured? *” 1 likes
“Of one slave Carter wrote, “dismembering will reclaim him.… I have cured many a Negro of running away by this means.” This horrible practice, legalized in 1705, evidently became widespread, with much resultant butchery; it received further legal blessing in the tightening of the slave laws in 1723, when the Virginia Assembly absolved owners and surgeons of manslaughter if such “dismembering” resulted in the slave’s death. The lawmakers assumed that no sane man would deliberately destroy his own very valuable property. It is hideous to imagine that doctors would participate in such medical atrocities, but they did.” 1 likes
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