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

por Henry Wiencek

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453743,509 (3.75)8
An analysis of how George Washington's life was impacted by slavery discusses his ties to the slave community, activities as a slave owner, realization of the evils of slavery, and political efforts on behalf of slaves. 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 at every stage of his life--as a Virginia planter, soldier, politician, president and statesman. Washington was born and raised among blacks and mixed-race people; he and his wife had blood ties to the slave community. Yet as a young man he bought and sold slaves without scruple, even raffled off children to collect debts (an incident ignored by earlier biographers). Then, on the Revolutionary battlefields where he commanded both black and white troops, Washington's attitudes began to change. He and the other framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution, but Wiencek shows, even before he became president, Washington had begun to see the system's evil. Wiencek's revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington's determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility--as the oral history of Mount Vernon's slave descendants has long asserted--that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true. George Washington's heroic stature as Father of Our Country is not diminished in this superb, nuanced portrait: now we see Washington in full as a man of his time and ahead of his time.… (más)
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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 these actions. In addition the idea that black folks owe free service is racism all on it's own. The author details the daily lives of most of GW's Enslaved population on multiple Washington and Custis Estates: they left home before light, worked until dark, were provided a single meal a day. They were expected to grow their own food, keep their own chickens and hunt and fish. In the small amount of down time they were alloted. In addition they were inadequately clothed unless in service where visitors could see them. Yet the author makes repeated references to slave theft. I guess they were just supposed to nobly starve and freeze to death. GW was the thief. He stole their labor they were surviving. He's the thief not them. He also references common slave resistance techniques and then uses that as a reason that GW 'had' to punish them, as if owning humans was something he had to do. As if humans being oppressed have none of the rights of liberty that GW felt entitled to. I appreciate the effort by this author but GW's actions can not be excused. They absolutely are representative of who he is and they taint his image for all posterity. Period. ( )
  LoisSusan | Dec 10, 2020 |
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. ( )
  gbelik | Dec 7, 2019 |
There are 2 other excellent reviews by carterchristian1 and juglecerr so I will only add my personal reactions. Loved the authors first person accounts of his research and his comments on earlier historians.

The amazing family interactions, between Martha and George, during his Presidency he was willing/compelled to pursue an escaped slave, Martha's maid and her property, using quite illegal methods, he did not tell her the details of his will, which freed his own slaves, between Hannah Washington, George's sister-in-law and the slave/freedman West Ford, Hannah made great efforts to ensure this one slave was freed, it's is unprovable but likely he was her grandson, which is why she cared. It's also possible that he was George's son.

What must it have been like, for all those white woman, mistresses of the plantation, to look at mixed race children and wonder is this my husband's child? is this my grandchild? ( )
  Janientrelac | Nov 23, 2014 |
This is an excellent view of Washington's position on a major injustice in which he participated, even if he elected to try and free his slaves at his death. It is interesting that his sister's husband in Frederickburg organized a school for slaves. An important contribution to Washington biographies. ( )
  carterchristian1 | Jul 28, 2010 |
I was glad to find this book - the hints about Washington and slavery in his other biographies have been tantalizing. This is so much more than just an examination of his papers. Wiencek has done a heroic job of research poring over an enormous variety of materials, talking with people to get oral histories, even going out to the Pioneer Farm to experience work during that era.

One of the most valuable issues that Wiencek discusses is the importance of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War. And the sad fact that their contributions, originally aknowledged, were gradually ignored. Alas, there is no reliable trend towards freedom and fairness.

The book explores the consequences and circumstances of slavery at the time, especially in Virginia, in great depth. He considers the tradeoffs between attempts to end slavery and maintain the union of all the colonies/states. He lays out this difficult questions without trying to give simplistic answers.

His view of Washington is nuanced, tracking changes in his attitudes over time and appreciating both his attempts to act according to his conscience and opportunities when he might have done more. In the end, I think that Wiencek has been quite fair and that my understanding of Washington, always one of my favorites among the Founders has been enormously enhanced.

The only trouble that I had reading the book is the depression brought on by the reminder that there is no bottom to the evils that people will inflict upon one another. ( )
  PuddinTame | Aug 20, 2009 |
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An analysis of how George Washington's life was impacted by slavery discusses his ties to the slave community, activities as a slave owner, realization of the evils of slavery, and political efforts on behalf of slaves. 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 at every stage of his life--as a Virginia planter, soldier, politician, president and statesman. Washington was born and raised among blacks and mixed-race people; he and his wife had blood ties to the slave community. Yet as a young man he bought and sold slaves without scruple, even raffled off children to collect debts (an incident ignored by earlier biographers). Then, on the Revolutionary battlefields where he commanded both black and white troops, Washington's attitudes began to change. He and the other framers enshrined slavery in the Constitution, but Wiencek shows, even before he became president, Washington had begun to see the system's evil. Wiencek's revelatory narrative, based on a meticulous examination of private papers, court records, and the voluminous Washington archives, documents for the first time the moral transformation culminating in Washington's determination to emancipate his slaves. He acted too late to keep the new republic from perpetuating slavery, but his repentance was genuine. And it was perhaps related to the possibility--as the oral history of Mount Vernon's slave descendants has long asserted--that a slave named West Ford was the son of George and a woman named Venus; Wiencek has new evidence that this could indeed have been true. George Washington's heroic stature as Father of Our Country is not diminished in this superb, nuanced portrait: now we see Washington in full as a man of his time and ahead of his time.

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