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

an imperfect god book cover

Recommended by Doug Braudaway


How many books have been written about George Washington? That is a rhetorical question. The answer is “a whole bunch.” So why another book. Well, George Washington was an extraordinary person. Beside leading the Continental Army and presiding other the Constitutional Convention, author Wienek details another reason to remember him.

Before covering Washington himself, the author goes into great detail of colonial plantation life. The first five chapters review Tidewater society as well as Washington and wife Martha’s families, their relative social statuses, the family links to other FF, a few miscegenation scandals, and the inheritance and dowry rules, which were strictly enforced to maintain families’ wealth and power.

What makes Washington all the more extraordinary is that became better than the slave-owning society he grew up in. It took a lifetime, but Washington broke with the system that had been instilled in him and freed his slaves. Of all the Founding Father slavers, and of all the Virginians who owned slaves during the 1700s, only Washington said “NO” to slavery.

It would be easy to say that the performance of black troops in Washington’s army (who numbered one in four) prompted the change of heart. But the performance of the troops and the need for more troops at so many points during the Revolution did not convince the other 99% of slavers to free any slaves. As President, he considered some sort of emancipation law, but he failed to convince Congress to adopt such a policy.

The story isn’t all roses. Washington did raise the bar for moral behavior and for political liberty, but it would be decades before the rest of the country caught up with him.