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Skeletons in the Closet | The Nation

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Skeletons in the Closet

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Henry Wiencek's An Imperfect God is another exploration of slavery and the founders, in this case George Washington. It's an important topic not only because Washington is such a revered figure in American history but because he was an especially interesting type: a Federalist who was not from New England or the mid-Atlantic region but from Virginia, and hence one who was increasingly at odds with the rest of his class.

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Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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As Wiencek shows, Washington's attitudes toward slavery were initially fairly typical. As the owner or manager of 18,000 acres of land and some 250 slaves by virtue of his marriage to the wealthy widow Martha Custis, he minimized costs, maximized output and maintained discipline by dressing his slaves in rags, auctioning off their children, ordering the disobedient among them to be whipped and punishing captured runaways by shipping them off to disease-ridden pestholes in the West Indies where he knew they would likely die from overwork. When it came to the British, meanwhile, he was capable of hypocrisy so soaring it can only be described as Jeffersonian. Denouncing taxation without representation in 1764, for instance, he declared: "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." He would be damned if he would allow the British to do unto him as he did unto others.

What changed Washington was his participation in a national struggle. Jefferson, a Virginia loyalist to his dying day, rarely left his home state during the Revolutionary War. Washington, by contrast, rarely returned. Elected commander in chief of the Continental forces in the summer of 1775, he quickly left for Massachusetts, where fighting had broken out the previous April. There he not only came into contact with radicals who were beginning to draw connections between America's desire for independence and the slaves' longing for freedom, but took charge of what Wiencek says was the most integrated US military force prior to the Vietnam War. By 1778 African-Americans would compose up to 13 percent of the Continental Army and, a few years later, may even have accounted for more. As one foreign officer observed, "You never see a regiment in which there are not negroes, and there are well-built, strong, husky fellows among them." Blacks had enlisted in Minute Man regiments and rallied to Paul Revere's call, a black sharpshooter named Peter Salem had shot a British major dead at Bunker Hill and a mixed-race regiment of seamen from Marblehead, Massachusetts, would later save the patriot cause from certain disaster by rescuing 9,000 besieged troops near Brooklyn Heights and ferrying them to safety across the East River.

Washington should have been grateful, but instead was torn. Free blacks who had taken up arms were bad enough from the planter point of view, but slaves were even worse. How could colonists claim to be struggling for freedom if they had to rely on slaves to do their fighting? One solution might have been to emancipate them in return for military service. That would have made Afro-Americans something approaching a partner in the struggle. But it would also have triggered a profound social upheaval across the South as one slave after another deserted his master to join up. An entire economy based on slave labor would have collapsed. Either the slaves or their owners would get their independence, but not both.

Freedom for the pike was death for the minnow. Faced with such a choice, Washington vacillated. Shortly after arriving in Massachusetts, he issued an order expelling blacks from the ranks. Then, when black veterans of Lexington and Concord objected, he took it back, at least as far as free blacks were concerned. In 1778, he gave his approval to a Rhode Island plan to raise a regiment of slaves by offering them freedom as an inducement to enlist. But when two of his aides, Alexander Hamilton and a wealthy young planter named John Laurens, proposed the same thing on a national scale, he withheld his support. Wiencek notes that Washington was contemplating a massive sale of his own slaves around this time to raise funds. If the Hamilton-Laurens plan had gone through, the value of such assets would have plummeted, something he was not prepared to see happen. Yet when his overseer wrote to complain that Washington's newfound reluctance to break up slave families was making a sale more difficult, the general refused to back down. He was not prepared to see that happen either.

Unlike Jefferson, Washington was genuinely torn between loyalty to his nation and loyalty to his class. Nonetheless, it is to Wiencek's credit that he does not let his subject off the hook. Had Washington freed his slaves while still President, "the effect," he argues, "might have been profound. He would have set the precedent that the chief executive cannot hold slaves." Instead, all Washington could bring himself to do was to draw up a will freeing his slaves after his widow's death. The gesture was painfully inadequate in view of the catastrophe that slavery represented. Still, at least it was something. By contrast, Jefferson not only refused to free his own slaves but in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" advanced a doctrine of black racial inferiority that would provide slaveowners with ideological ammunition for decades to come.

An Imperfect God is a model of controlled indignation. Wiencek admires Washington, yet piles detail upon detail about the slave system of which he was a part: what it meant, how it functioned, the costs it imposed on both its immediate victims and larger society, and so forth. Even for those of us who consider ourselves well informed, the results are shocking. Whether or not black Americans were more oppressed in absolute terms than comparable groups throughout history, three things about their condition stand out: Their imprisonment was infinite in duration, extending not just to them but to all their descendants; their treatment was unmitigated by either custom, law or religious morality; and their enslavement took place in an otherwise advanced society in which everyone around them, slaveowners first and foremost, was shouting for freedom and natural rights. The combination was (and is) infuriating.

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