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Power, slavery and a president

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America; Henry Wiencek; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 404 pp., $26

November 30, 2003|Joyce Appleby | Joyce Appleby, professor of history emerita at UCLA, is the author, most recently, of "Thomas Jefferson."

Slowly, year by year, book by book, we are recovering the suppressed story of how Southern planters and their enslaved men and women lived together. With the publication of Henry Wiencek's "An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America," the momentum of this recovery of a hidden side of our history is picking up.

In a last will and testament written five months before his death in 1799, George Washington arranged for the manumission of his 124 slaves. "Arranged" is the right word, for Washington knew all too well the stratagems his heirs and executors would use to evade his intentions. Despite this stunning rejection of the slave edifice of Southern society, Washington spent much of his life behaving like a typical planter: selling and threatening to sell his slaves, having them whipped, recapturing them and dispatching them to West Indian death traps and using his lordly power to punish and reward. He once even organized a raffle of slaves to settle a debt. Deemed a humane master, he nonetheless kept his field hands in rags with little in the way of protection from the elements, in either shelter or bedding.

The quickening of Washington's conscience infuses Wiencek's study with acute tension, for Washington vacillated about slavery during the last four decades of his life. The struggle began with his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis. She brought the wealth of her father and her deceased husband to Washington, lifting him into the upper tier of Virginia's elite. In addition to farm laborers for his extended holdings, he could now assign personal attendants to himself, his wife and his two stepchildren, heirs of the Custis fortune. No consumption was more conspicuous in Tidewater, Va., than an entourage of slaves, preferably light-skinned mulattoes. Washington learned to indulge these tastes, ordering an elegant carriage from England, to be attended by liveried slaves, soon after his wedding. A love of luxury and the desire to cut a figure ensnared him in the Southern grandees' grandiose way of living, along with the assumptions thought to justify human bondage.

The Revolution tested one of those assumptions: that slaves were incapable of valor in battle. Free African Americans served in Minutemen units and fought at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, shocking their new general with the sight of black men in arms. After the outburst of patriotic zeal in 1775, the Continental Army suffered a chronic shortage of men. Northern and Southern leaders alike refused to enlist slaves, fearing to degrade the role of soldier, but free blacks volunteered and were integrated into the fighting force. A Massachusetts regiment that included black sailors ferried Washington's entire army from Brooklyn Heights to Manhattan, an astounding evacuation feat, in the summer of 1776. Five years later, Washington chose the First Rhode Island Regiment, which was 75% black, to attack a formidable British redoubt at Yorktown in the final days of the war.

During the war, Washington also encountered his first champions of abolition, right in his own headquarters. Both John Laurens, an ardent reformer from the bosom of South Carolina's planter elite, and the Marquis de Lafayette sought Washington's support for emancipation projects. Initially encouraging, Washington temporized with both men, no doubt checked by his dependence on his own slaves to recoup his fortune. Still, his wartime experiences had an impact. In public and in private, Washington condemned slavery, expressing the conviction that emancipation had to come sooner or later if the nation were to prevail. He ordered his overseers to keep families intact. In his second term as president, when he feared he had cancer, he made his first, but unexecuted, plans to emancipate his slaves.

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