The Best and Worst of Mankind
April 1, 2004
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America
Henry Wiencek (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003)
One American Founder has largely escaped the recent criticism that has plagued the historical reputation of prominent slaveholders such as Thomas Jefferson. George Washington, unlike Jefferson, eventually took steps to reconcile his principles with his interests. Washington freed his slaves in his will (actually, they were freed subsequently by his wife because many of them were Custis family slaves outside of his direct legal control). Washington, as commanding general and then as president, always accepted due limits to his political power. By freeing his slaves at the end of his life, Washington recognized that private justice demanded similar limits on him and other citizens of the republic.
Or so most Americans have believed. It was then with some trepidation that I picked up a new book by Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), which offers the most thorough account yet of Washington’s life as a slaveholder. I put it down with considerable relief. It is not a hatchet job, designed to bring down yet another pillar of the New Order of the Ages. It is a serious book, one that challenges the reader, and Washington himself, even if one does not agree with all of Wiencek’s particular conclusions.
To understand Washington as slaveholder, Wiencek relies upon, and contributes to, a growing body of scholarship that attempts to reconstruct the actual life and perspective of American slaves. His research—and that of other scholars—shatters the romantic “Gone with the Wind” image of happy, organic slave plantations, with their benevolent masters and contented servants, superior to the emerging financial and industrial capitalism of the North. Slavery was a brutal and dehumanizing institution. The slaves were real human beings. They knew they were in bondage. They hated it. They schemed to get around the worst of the system and to escape if they could. To maintain the slaveholding system against such resistance, owners developed a set of formal (legal) and informal mechanisms to control their chattel— and to maximize their profits. Such a system was inherently degrading and corrupting to those “free men” who participated in it. There may have been better or worse slave owners, but there were no good slave owners.
Wiencek explores in some detail whether George Washington was a better or worse slave owner. He presents a mixed picture, largely favorable to Washington—he was certainly more enlightened than the norm—but many of the examples cause one to swallow hard. George Washington was obliged—certainly he felt obliged—to resort to the accepted tools of control available to the slave master. He had slaves whipped, although he chose overseers to administer punishment who would not injure them. He tracked down runaways, even while serving as president.
In making particular judgments about Washington’s actions and motivation, Wiencek necessarily relies on tenuous evidence and inferences. In some cases I did not agree with his assessment. On balance, however, Wiencek offers the persuasive conclusion that “Washington was not a racist; he did not believe that slaves were inherently inferior people; he believed that the apparent deficiencies in African-Americans were the result of enslavement, and that with education and the opportunity to find work they could prosper as free people.” As to Washington’s final act as a slave owner, setting about to free his slaves: “He acted not out of sentiment but out of a sense of justice that extended to all the slaves, including those who had maligned or stolen from him or tried to escape. He did not free only a favored few, as other masters and mistresses occasionally did. His sense of justice knew no exceptions.”
Wiencek appreciates the fact that Washington’s moral position on slavery evolved over time. The decision to free his slaves was not a last-minute, guilt-ridden effort—as with virtually everything of Washington’s adult life, it was the culmination of a great deal of thought, experience, and planning. Beginning in the 1760s, he had come to realize that plantation slavery was an economically inefficient system. It exhausted the soil and it gave the enslaved no incentive to work hard (as opposed to non-slave labor). The first stirrings of the American Revolution also caused Washington to reflect on the deeper meaning of slavery. As he wrote to a friend: “The crisis is arrived when we must assert our rights or submit to every imposition that can be heaped on us till custom and use shall make us as tame and abject slaves as the blacks we rule over with such arbitrary sway.”
Washington’s moral growth did not stop there. After some initial hesitation, he decided to admit free blacks into the Continental Army. He won the war with troops who were more integrated than any American military force until Vietnam. He witnessed the unquestioned valor of black soldiers. He admired the work of the black poet Phillis Wheatley and invited her to visit his headquarters. He seems to have explored the idea of freeing some of his slaves before assuming the Presidency. He later reorganized his farms and attempted to sell some of his prized western lands to finance the eventual emancipation.
At the same time, however, Washington did not make his personal opposition to slavery a public matter, nor did he embrace any political solution to deal with the problem. He was displeased by efforts by the Quakers and others to stir up abolitionist sentiment. The Union for Washington was then paramount to all other concerns—”I confess… candidly that I can foresee no greater evil than disunion.” Slavery was one of the two or three issues that, if put to the test, might indeed destroy the new Constitution. If Washington freed his own slaves while still a public man—to say nothing of encouraging abolitionist policies by the government—he risked tearing the country apart while weakening his own political influence, which was so essential to the larger cause of American liberty. Washington seems to have believed that the end of slavery could be accomplished only through thousands of private decisions like his own—aided at first indirectly by a government committed to supporting a diversified, free labor economy, and perhaps later more directly through laws and financial support.
And so Washington held off his own personal choice against slavery until his death, when he probably believed his moral authority would be beyond challenge—not only to the American public, but also to his own family, whom he knew would fiercely oppose emancipation.
Was Washington correct in his judgment? Martha did free all but one of their slaves soon after Washington’s death—whether reluctantly (as Wiencek believes) or not, we cannot know. His estate paid for the education and training of the newly-freed young and support for the aged. Slavery in the North continued to die out along the lines he had anticipated. But in the South and parts of the newly-opened West, the calculation of financial interest changed with the emergence of a cotton-based economy. Virginians could now get rich by breeding and selling slaves. Jefferson and his Republicans, and then Andrew Jackson and his Democrats, whatever their other merits, encouraged and abetted the Slave Power.
Perhaps, as Wiencek argues, Washington should have made more of a point of his opposition to slavery. Perhaps he should have said something in his famous Farewell Address. Perhaps he should have issued a public challenge to accompany his Last Will and Testament. Let this serve as a humble reminder, however, of the limits of human foresight and good will, even for the most serious of men.
Patrick Garrity is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.