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Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux - September 3rd, 2004
People can learn.
George Washington certainly learned... a lot. In An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America by Henry Wiencek, readers can nearly plot the curve. Students of Washington know that, when he died in 1799, he specified in his will that all his slaves be given freedom and generations of his admirers have ultimately excused, rationalized, or explained away an entire lifetime of full participation in the evil practice. And too often the issue gets largely ignored as if it somehow doesn't square with the mythical image of the Founding Father.
Henry Wiencek will have none of it. His book is an unflinching, comprehensive, and groundbreaking story of Washington's journey from slave master to emancipator, from routine buyer and seller of human beings to a man absolutely convinced that the whole institution was dehumanizing to all parties.
Wiencek examines Washington's life from ambitious and anxious youth, to military prominence, to national leadership in war and peace, and finally to an exalted retirement.
At every stage of his life Washington was involved with slavery and questions of race, and the author proves expert at examining old and new evidence that is simultaneously exciting, distressing, and frequently surprising. (The on again-off again story of General Washington's attitude about the use of black soldiers during the revolution is likely to produce a book or two.)
What emerges is a very human individual with a reassuring capacity to learn and an unusual determination to act. Washington's decision to free his slaves had almost no impact on the immediate history of his era. Except within his family and among other Virginia planter classes, it was largely unknown or simply ignored.
Henry Wiencek has delivered a serious study of George Washington's moral transformation on the evil question of slavery in America. The scholarship that backs the work is impressive, the writing is provocative and stimulating in the best sense, and Washington gets fair treatment. A generation ago this kind of biography might have been controversial in spite of the above strengths.
But, like Washington, we seem to have learned - and like him, we can do better. ~ Reviewed by Bill Lewis