An Imperfect God; Review by Ken Collier
An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America
by Henry Wiencek
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. 362pp.
Americans are, in some very important ways, a rather unsophisticated people. One lack of sophistication lies in the ways we idolize and idealize our heroes. It is as if we think that flaws somehow detract from the importance of a hero. Thus, for example, it was often argued that Thomas Jefferson couldn’t have fathered children with Sally Hemings; it would have been totally out of character. The reality is that he did father her children and yet he was and remains an American hero.
Sometimes our naiveté is downright silly, as the Jefferson example illustrates. But sometimes it leads to tragic results, as in the efforts to forbid the inclusion of criticism of the Founding Fathers in school textbooks, thus falsifying our history and leading students to an absurd and unbalanced understanding of American history.
In the last several decades, more and more of us have wondered how it is that the same men who proclaimed the birth of this nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could also be slaveholders and racists. Did they not see the paradox that marred the national nativity? How can we resolve this paradox?
Henry Wiencek suggests that moral paradox is inherent in being human. We are simultaneously capable of great heights of moral achievement and equally deep moral blindness and blunders. This paradox is not just in the lives and choices of those early Founding Fathers; it is inherent in all our lives. And the solution is not to point our fingers at them in judgment and blame. The solution is to learn both from the ways they fell victim to their limitations and from the ways they overcame those limitations.
The truth is that every one of the Founding Fathers (and Founding Mothers, for that matter) was a human being with all the flaws, limitations, and propensity to sin as every other human being. Jefferson did have a long-term sexual relationship with the enslaved Sally Hemings; George Washington was a slaveholder, and a major one at that; and virtually all of the Founding Fathers did believe in the inherent superiority of European Americans. We deny these truths at our grave peril.
George Washington may be the most idealized of all our heroes. Never told a lie, right? Was always honest in all his dealings, right? Was a brilliant general who never lost a battle, right? And though he did hold slaves, he always treated them in the most humane and enlightened manner, right? Well, not exactly.
Wiencek is that unusual and valuable historian who is both a respected scholar and a good writer, and he tells the truth without embarrassment and in such an engaging way that, that An Imperfect God is both scholarly and totally engrossing. Wiencek reminds us that Washington began his slaveholding with utter indifference to the feelings and human needs of the enslaved, yet by the end of his life, not only had he long forbidden the break-up of enslaved families by their sale, but also, in his last will, freed all of the enslaved people that he was able to free. And he was the only one of the slaveholding Founding Fathers who did so.
The emotional and moral distance Washington travelled was, in fact, extraordinary. Wiencek writes that early in Washington’s life as a slaveholder his “overriding concern with labor efficiency led him to divide his slaves in a way that greatly weakened their families…..As a general management practice he institutionalized an indifference to the stability of the slave families.” Yet in his will, not only did he stipulate that enslaved families may not be broken up, but also directed that the children he freed “are to be taught to read & write; and to be brought up to some useful occupation….”
This journey was anything but easy or straightforward, and Wiencek documents the struggle Washington went through and the moral failures he encountered on the way. It was the proverbial two steps forward and one step back. But, remarkably, Washington did not shrink from the journey, and what really makes this journey a hero’s journey was his ability to move ahead, even though it was difficult and painful and sometimes required of him that he act against every instinct that his culture had instilled in him.
Washington’s life was far from that of a perfect hero, but that should neither surprise nor dismay anyone. Wiencek suggests to us that we take at least these lessons from this imperfect hero. First, it is possible for human beings—even flawed and weak human beings like you and me—to rise above their culture and move it forward. Some, like Washington, may do this in very public and obvious ways while most of us do it in hidden and private ways, but all of us can do it. Second, our flaws do not condemn us any more than our successes save us. What saves us is our ability to give our imperfect lives to that which is greater than we and joins us together in interconnected unity; what condemns us is our turning away from each other to a broken isolation.