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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

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

Imperfect God - Henry Wiencek 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 wife Martha in particular, had no qualms about slavery. Idealists of today can be critical of Washington's silence and compromising approach to the issue of slavery. But remember, one of the reasons the newly written Constitution was ratified by the required number of states was because they knew George Washington would be the first one elected to the office of President, and everybody trusted him. The reason they trusted him was his willingness to remain silent on issues that he knew would ruffle the feathers of others.

The book follows the story of Washington's ancestors, his youth, and follows him through his adult years. The story of slavery of America during this time is also described. The book portrays a shift in Washington's attitude toward African-Americans during the Revolutionary War. Washington spent most of his time during the war in the north where there were numerous freed blacks. Between 6% to 13% of the Continental Army were freed blacks, and one Rhode Island regiment was 90% black. Washington learned to respect their abilities during this time. However, George Washington was the consummate politician, and during his presidency and retirement years in Virginia he kept his personal opinions about slavery limited to a select few. In the end he avoided the wrath of his family and wife by freeing his slaves in his will after his death, an act he had not discussed with Martha. One fact I learned from this book is that most of the slaves serving at Mount Vernon were dower slaves, the property of the Custis estate (came to the marriage through Martha), and Washington's will could not free them. His will indicated his wish that they could be freed along with his, but in the end few were freed. That is again an indication of the attitude of his family.

The narrative follows the stories of some of Washington's slaves, some of whom escaped while serving during the presidency years in Philadelphia. The story of an escaped slave named Ona Judge was of particular interest. It appears that Washington may have been willing to do nothing about her escape, but his wife Martha insisted that every effort be made to make her return. Washington knew that the incident had the potential of being politically embarrassing, but Martha wanted her maid back at all costs.

The following are my thoughts, not from the book:
I think the past predicament of white Americans living in slave states was similar to us today who are addicted to the use of fossil fuels. We know its bad for the world's climate, we know it's bad for the nation's balance of payments, and we know future generations will hate us for it, but we just can't quit. Past slave economies were in a similar situation. They knew there were problems but didn't see how their way of life could survive without slavery. It required the Civil War and 100+ years of continuing struggle to get rid of race based slavery. What will it take to teach us how to live without fossil fuels? Could a world wide financial depression do it?