Henry Wiencek: Interviewed about his book on George Washington

Historians in the News

Henry Wiencek is the author of the acclaimed An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2003), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in history and the Best Book of 2003 award from the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic.

Common-place: One of the striking revelations in Imperfect God is just how intertwined Washington's life was with the institution of slavery. Everyone knows he owned slaves, but few recognize just how pervasive a part of his day-to-day existence slaves and slavery were. Was this a revelation to you as well? If so, how did it come about?

Henry Wiencek: Because Washington is chiefly known and studied as a political figure, historians have looked at Washington's encounter with slavery through a political lens. Finding that Washington made no official statements about slavery during his presidency and that the issue did not arise in any dramatically significant way during his term, the political historians have relegated slavery to a footnote in studies of Washington. The story is almost the same for Washington as a military leader. General biographers of Washington have by and large been uninterested in slavery (Flexner is somewhat of an exception), except as a narrative device for making Washington look good; so they have tended to cherry pick anecdotes and statements that put Washington in a positive light, and they have tended to compartmentalize the discussion in a single, brief section or chapter. Reading these books would make one think that slavery was present in Washington's life only as a kind of social/environmental wallpaper—African American figures hovering silently in the background in dining rooms and in fields—and that slavery never ruffled his Olympian conscience at all.

Because I came at Washington from the perspective of someone who studies plantation families, I knew before I had even begun that I would find slavery a pervasive presence in Washington's life. How could it be otherwise? Before he was anything else he was a planter/farmer (two different things), and if you asked him while he was in office what his occupation was, he would have said"farmer." He inherited slaves when he was still a child; he bought, sold, and rented slaves; he personally managed slaves, depended on slaves for his income for his entire life, negotiated with individual slaves, personally chose certain slaves for his household and for public appearances, and entered contracts regarding slaves; he married a woman whose wealth consisted very largely of slaves and who controlled more slaves than he did; he directly felt the effects of local and federal laws regarding slaves, etc., etc. Having slaves around all the time was part of his psychology—it was comforting; it validated his status as a person of substance and authority. There was no doubt at all that slavery pervaded his life, but the question was: ubiquitous or not, did slaves and slavery stand far in the background of his consciousness (as wallpaper), or did he have some direct, pressing awareness of moral and ethical issues regarding slavery? We look back and say slavery was evil by our standards; maybe he didn't feel that way at all. I was acutely aware of the problem of"presentism"—judging a figure of the distant past by our standards. I wanted to discover what Washington's own standards were, and my starting point was his last will and testament, in which he freed his slaves. In parsing the language of his will I found that, by the last year of his life, slavery had become a huge moral issue for him. Did this represent a change in his thinking? If so, what brought about that change? When? The will also suggested that Washington sharply disagreed with his wife and the rest of his extended family on the slavery issue....

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