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An Imperfect God, George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek

Book:
Henry Wiencek

Reviewed by:
Rating:
4
On March 31, 2011
Last modified:October 5, 2012

Summary:

Judgment of historical figures should be made in the context of the times in which they lived. Evil and virtue, right and wrong, do not change, but understanding of them does.

An Imperfect God by Henry WiencekThis book is equal parts an engrossing history and a disappointment.   In a style that is off-putting for the reader, the author switches from first person descriptions of his field research at various locations of historical interest, to a conventional historian’s narrative.  By interposing his own feelings in these accounts, his objectivity, at least for this reviewer, is suspect.

The first part of the book is a well-researched account of Washington’s early years and the Virginia he inhabited. Wiencek’s description of the social and political hierarchy that controlled Virginia is illuminating, as is his description of slavery and the complex economic interests and familial ties that bound the two strata of Virginia society together.  His research is thorough and much is original.

However, in the second part of the book the author’s focus narrows to a single facet of Washington’s life, that he owned slaves and, despite his growing repugnance, that he did not free them until after his death.   More about that topic will be covered later in this review.

Having recently read First Family, this reviewer was struck by similarities between John Adams and George Washington.  Although raised in different circumstances and influenced by different sets of societal mores, they shared certain character traits.  Both were ambitious and determined to advance in the world.  Both resolved to root out personal character defects.   Adams, the more introspective and self-critical, waged a constant battle against an unruly temperament that he feared would make his ambitions unachievable.

Washington measured himself against the expectations of his class as laid out in a book of rules, or more accurately 3 books: The Rules of Civility, Seneca’s Morals, and Joseph Addison’s Cato.  Like other great men of the Revolutionary generation, he was steeped in the classics and molded by them as much as by his environment.  For both Adams and Washington, self-control was the standard by which life should be lived.

The author writes,

He was a man for whom discipline, order, routine and punctuality were liberating. … The phrase “I make it a rule” … runs throughout his letters, papers and conversations.  If he made a rule to do something then he was immune to personal appeals, exceptions and deviations.   He would always do the right thing despite his personal inclination to do otherwise.

Washington’s father died when George was 11, leaving his mother with 5 children to raise in financially reduced circumstances.   As the third son, George would not inherit enough land and slaves to establish him properly in Virginia society.  He had few prospects except for those of his own invention, and the possibility of marrying well.

As a teen George studied the science of surveying and it served him well.   He attracted the attention of William Fairfax, an influential Virginian, who sent him to the frontier (Pennsylvania) to chart the land Fairfax was selling to settlers.   The experience toughened Washington physically and taught him to endure the roughest terrain and the most inclement weather.

Upon his return, he was able to turn his surveying into a profitable business and to rent Mt. Vernon from his brother’s widow, along with a portion of his brother’s slaves.  Fairfax used his influence with the governor to have the 20-year old Washington appointed as adjutant of the Virginia Militia.  He saw action in the French and Indian War and, despite one misadventure, acquitted himself well. When it was over, Washington returned to Mt. Vernon anxious to expand his holdings.

Whether the pairing of Washington and the young widow Martha Custis, heiress to one of the largest fortunes in Virginia, was deliberate or fortunate happenstance, no one knows. Wiencek offers possible accounts of their meeting.  However, their private papers indicate that they were truly smitten.  It was a fortunate union for both. Martha needed a manager for her properties and a father for her children.  Washington needed the social standing and the fortune that Martha brought to the marriage.

In Washington’s Virginia, family determined one’s place and one’s identity… The family was the engine of wealth and power…Kinship with an old-line family of substance and influence conferred prestige on the lesser relations.  Thus as one historian wrote, ‘the gentry of Virginia studied one another’s genealogies as closely as a stockman would scrutinize his stud books.’

The First Families of Virginia were almost all related and politically powerful.  In 1742, all twelve members of the Virginia Royal Council were connected either by blood or by marriage.  The author provides a guide to family names, histories, and social rank.

As a result of his marriage, Washington resigned his commission in the Virginia Militia. Wiencek muses that “had Martha not entered the picture, he (Washington) might have returned to the militia to pursue another dream, a commission in the regular army of his Majesty.”

Washington was a good father to Martha’s children, although his adopted son, Jacky, violated most of the standards of conduct Washington valued. Martha’s daughter, Patsy, of whom he was very fond, tragically died at a young age.  He was an enthusiastic farmer very much involved in plantation affairs. Other historians have presented him as a poor businessman, but, according, to Wiencek, it was not so much lack of business acumen as the ups and downs of the tobacco market and the poor soil of his farms that caused his perennial indebtedness.  Less often noted is that Washington was a talented innovator, a trait usually ascribed to Franklin and Jefferson.  He was one of the first to rotate his crops; he was the first to compost manure; and to breed mules in America. When tobacco seemed an uncertain source of income he switched to corn and wheat and invented an ingenious threshing barn that the author describes in detail.

Wiencek also provides a thorough and poignant dissertation on the institution of slavery.  He points out that it was slow to take root in Virginia.  Although the first slaves arrived in 1619, white indentured servants greatly outnumbered slaves during the 17th century.  However, as time went on that changed.  The number of indentured workers declined as England began to realize the advantages of preserving a cheap labor force at home.  Virginia made up the deficit with slaves who were not only needed to cultivate tobacco but, as their numbers grew through natural increase, became an important source of plantation wealth.

However, the growing population of mixed race children soon became the elephant in plantation living rooms.   Everyone knew about it, but no one wanted to talk about it.   No one, that is, but the General Assembly who dealt with the problem by passing laws making such children slaves for life, thus keeping the races separate and assuring that plantation owners’ estates stayed safely within the white community.

Washington, like other owners of large plantations, depended upon slaves to work the land.  The record of his treatment of them is mixed. One visitor to Mt. Vernon commented, “General Washington treats his slaves far more humanely than do his fellow citizens of Virginia. Most of these gentlemen give to their blacks only bread, water and blows “ However, the records also show that the slaves living conditions were abysmal and that he strictly enforced the return of runaways.

Although Washington’s distaste for slavery grew, especially after witnessing the valor of black troops in the Continental Army, (the most integrated American Army until the Vietnam War) Martha and the rest of the Custis family did not share his change of heart.  That Washington held slaves is not remarkable given the place and time in which he lived.  What is remarkable is his growing realization that slavery was morally wrong, an awareness that few, if any, of his class shared.

Wiencek writes, “Of all the great Virginia patriots, only Washington ultimately had the moral courage and farsightedness to free his slaves… But because so much about him as a slaveholder has been suppressed, his moral evolution has been obscured and his usefulness to us as a moral guide has been undermined.”

But that is a thin thread on which to hang Wiencek’s exhaustive exploration of interracial sex and other depredations within the Custis and Washington families.   Wiencek tried this reader’s patience by his overly long account of the life and times of West Ford, a slave who enjoyed a privileged position at Mt. Vernon.

The point of the author’s attention appears to be to build a case that Washington may have fathered the mixed race boy with a slave belonging to his sister-in-law.  There is no evidence to support that contention and much to refute it.  In fact, most historians believe that Washington was sterile due to a teenage case of small pox.  That he and Martha had no children would make that likely. Regardless, such an affair would have been out of character for a man whose mantra was “self-control.”  By Wiencek’s own account, it seems more likely that Washington’s brother was the father.   That being the case, the print expended on West Ford is tedious and difficult to justify.

Wiencek seems to find it puzzling that Washington failed to free his slaves during his lifetime, considering his condemnation of slavery revealed in his private correspondence.  However, it is not puzzling at all when the realities of his situation are taken into account.

Like many plantation owners, Washington was in debt, and slaves were not only needed to work the farms, they represented a considerable portion of his wealth.   Although he had plans to mitigate the economic ramifications of freeing his own slaves, (which did not work out), he was powerless to free the slaves held by inheritance from the Custis family.  There was also the Martha problem.  From Wiencek’s research it is almost certain that freeing his slaves would have been counter to Martha’s wishes. (His will stipulates they were to be freed upon Martha’s death).  The author also mentions the risk of destabilizing the strained relations between northern anad southern states had Washington freed his slaves when president.

Washington knew he and his contemporaries were morally culpable.  He struggled with the contradiction between a way of life he had always known, and his conscience.  He hesitated, he equivocated, and finally he postponed doing what he knew to be right. In short, he succumbed to the political, social and economic pressures of his time.

While Wiencek pays lip service to the fallacy of applying contemporary values to 18th century life, he does exactly that.  The title of the book betrays the author’s disposition. Wiencek demands perfection, but Washington was not a God.  He was mortal and imperfect as are all men.   Wiencek is a dedicated researcher but not an objective one.  Washington and the other Founders did not invent the world in which they lived.  They invented the one is which we live.

7 comments

1 Diana Rubino { 09.01.11 at 9:19 am }

I’m a historical novelist and read this book for research for my next book. I don’t believe Wiencek demands perfection–he’s telling it like it is–George was a product of his times, actually way ahead of it, since he freed all his slaves after his death. The first-person narratives give a personal touch to his research, so I didn’t find them especially objectionable–I actually prefer this way to the often badly disguised personal opinions and attempts to sway readers employed by historical authors. :) A thorough and thoughtful review of a book that adds a deep dimension to the Washingtons and Custises, containing information no one ever has or ever will learn in the classroom.
Diana Rubino, author of A NECESSARY END

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2 Marcia { 09.01.11 at 2:01 pm }

I agree that it is far better when historians are up front about personal biases. I did enjoy and learn from this book, despite my caveats. Wiencek is an impressive researcher and writer. Thank you for your comments. It’s always interesting to get a contrasting view on a book, especially from someone like yourself who reads a great deal.

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3 Jason { 12.29.14 at 6:42 am }

I didnt care for the first person bits and i wondered about objectivity, yet i still think the book is worth reading and by the way, i *do* believe in condemning slaveowners by our modern contemporary ideals — IDEALS WHICH THEY THEMSELVES RECOGNIZED AND ACKNOWLEDGED TO BE TRUE.

The book is imperfect but your review is shoddy and apologist; the author never seeks “perfection” in Washington, and only laments that he was human and mortal like you and I, and *not* a “perfect god”. Yet you twist this into “betraying the author’s disposition”, which is, um, against the tragedy and crime of slavery, which is (duh) a blot on our history.

To repeat: as far as “historical objectivity” goes, you could use some yourself: enslaving human beings is wrong, stupid.

That’s as objective as I can be about the matter.

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4 Jason { 12.29.14 at 6:47 am }

Honestly, the book frustrated me, which is why I googled it.
Your review is far far more frustrating than the book at its worst.

No end-all or be-all, I still found the book to contain valuable history I had heretofore never known, and it filled in gaps. I’d recommend its consideration to any reader looking to learn more about the convoluted and complicated story of slavery in our new world.

You’re wrong to defend the slaveowners for “not inventing the world they lived in”, for they very much did. That is obvious to a child; the Revolution was, um, about inventing a new, er, you know, thing called a “country”, which happened to be a slaveholder paradise for a serious stretch of time.

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5 Jason { 12.29.14 at 6:47 am }

Moderate me to hell and back, wwtft.com.

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6 Jason { 12.29.14 at 6:50 am }

Agree with Diana, whose understanding of the title obviously exceeds the reviewer’s comprehension. Far from a great book, it does convey much worthy Washington-Custis history as well as providing some tremendous historical context to slavery — context which the reviewer wrongly claims does not exist.

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7 Marcia { 12.29.14 at 10:17 am }

Thank you, Jason, for taking the time to make multiple comments, but I am afraid you misunderstood my review. If you read it again you will see the multiple times I note and concur with condemning slavery as a moral wrong. The point I was trying to make is that Washington rose above the economic and social milieu in which he lived. He was torn by the contradiction between slavery and the founding premises. But as Abraham Lincoln, 176 years later, argued in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, slavery was accepted out of political necessity and all that was politically possible was done to prevent its spread and limit its tenure. Had the founders not compromised with slavery, the nation would have been stillborn. No, not all the founders shared Washington’s repugnance, but many did.

When I called applying contemporary values to 18th century life “a fallacy,” (as did Wiencek), neither he nor I meant that slavery was morally acceptable. But to pillory the founders for making that compromise, as many do today, is to ignore the political and economic conditions of the times in which they lived.

I concur with you, Wiencek’s book is full of first rate research and very much worth reading. I was bothered by all the ink he expended on the slave, West Ford, on the unproven (and unlikely) assumption that Washington was his father. I felt that it would have been a stronger book without that digression. Again, thank you for your comments.

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