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

4.02  ·  Rating details ·  793 Ratings  ·  73 Reviews
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 engagement with slavery
Hardcover, 404 pages
Published November 15th 2003 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published January 1st 2003)
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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 wi ...more
May 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 questio
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
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
Feb 09, 2011 rated it liked it
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 soldier ...more
Anne Hawn Smith
Mar 15, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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 th ...more
Mar 29, 2015 rated it it was amazing
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 economi ...more
Sep 16, 2015 rated it really liked it

One of the least discussed, and most misunderstood aspects of George Washington’s 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 ab
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
Wesley Wade
May 21, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 di
Jun 18, 2014 rated it liked it
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 c ...more
Robert Clay
Aug 01, 2007 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 African ...more
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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. Yes
Aug 03, 2017 rated it really liked it
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.
Feb 18, 2017 rated it really liked it
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
Jun 21, 2017 rated it liked it
I liked the conversational style of the writing but was annoyed that items of note/interest were mentioned and sometimes never really explained.
Andrew Rowen
Feb 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Extraordinary research and perception, explaining not only Washington but the daily life of master/slave relationships.
Apr 18, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Excellent read. A well researched book that gives great information about our first President and his thoughts and dealings with slaves.
Aug 06, 2017 rated it really liked it
Another top notch book on Washington.
Louis Phillips
Jan 20, 2018 is currently reading it
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.
Oct 03, 2012 rated it liked it
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
Samir Salifou
Feb 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 tak ...more
Theo Logos
The troubling and uncomfortable subject of America's slave owning founders is a difficult one with which to deal, and one that many Americans would prefer to ignore altogether. The idea that men we have come to view as great and noble could on the one hand stake their lives and honor on the cause of freedom and liberty for "all" men, and on the other exclude an entire race that they held in bondage for their own profit is a huge contradiction that does not easily fit into the ideal American myth ...more
Gary Hoggatt
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 Creati ...more
Feb 10, 2010 rated it did not like it
Fans of Washington need not fear, and muckrakers might look elsewhere. Henry Weincek takes up the touchy and murky task of analyzing George Washington the slaveholder, and uncovers a rather benign and inscrutable character.

Whether or not Washington was a slave owner is not in question. Weincek has uncovered and utilized a healthy helping of firsthand information on the subject, which lends his book more weight than it would have achieved on the basis of its waffling opinion alone. The research i
Jun 11, 2009 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
I was expecting something different from the title. "An Imperfect God..." I am not sure what was imperfect about him. I thought he was going to describe some things that people would be like oh my gosh he wasn't this great guy, etc. The only thing the author said negative about him was that he didn't set his slaves free once he became President and set the standard for others to follow. I think in that time period that would have been extremely hard to do. Upon his death his will stated that his ...more
Nov 02, 2008 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
This was a fascinating refresher for me, a book assigned in a previous history class that i neglected to actually read. I thought it a very fitting read around the election as well and its results, the first black president.

i say "refresher" because it unearthed all of my favorite hypocrisies in nascent america on which i used to love to ponder. the simultaneous formation of the first democratic union with the imbedding of one of the last modern slave societies is, though seemingly an obvious co
Candace Lazzaro
Aug 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: us-president
I am going to try to read biographies of all the US Presidents. Of course I start with Washington. This isn't a straight forward biography but I am really enjoying it. I saw that there is a similar one about Jefferson that I'm going to try to find when I finish reading the biography of John Adams that I have. It, well of course, looks at George Washington's life through his "slaves". It gives a good basic background on his history but it's also a "tour" of Mount Vernon and the whole plantation e ...more
Mar 21, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Well-researched and thoughtfully considered. There are a few odd moments: Wiencek practically genuflects to Washington at the beginning, and near the end he writes that Washington "wasn't a racist" (because--apparently--he didn't believe blacks were ontologically inferior), which is an extraordinary thing to say about a man who owned slaves his entire life.

Those outlying moments aside, Wiencek doesn't flinch from shining a light on Washington's history of and relationship to slave-ownership. He
Sep 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing
A fantastic look at the Father of our Country and his moral struggle with slavery. Married into a well-to-do Southern plantation family, he owned upwards of 300 slaves. A brilliant military general who, it seemed at times, singlehandedly won America's independence and was overwhelmingly chosen as its first President. Revered, beloved and placed high on a pedestal by school children for decades to come, Washington was, as the title suggest, "an imperfect god". The book is honest and straightforwa ...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 Nati ...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? *” 0 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.” 0 likes
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