Review by D.H.T. Shippey

When George Washington wrote his will, he explicitly laid out a plan to set his slaves free and provide for their future. This fact alone makes a book about Washington and the slaves in his life an important work.

  Henry Wiencek’s An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America was the first book ever to focus on this important subject.  It is also, surprisingly, still the only book to do so. In his book Wiencek drifts between deep scholarly research, hearsay, speculation, and even his own personal experiences. It is an uneven read. Much of the book is fascinating, parts of the book are frustrating, and bits are downright infuriating. At times, for no perceptible reason, the book leaves Washington altogether to follow later descendants. Missing is any illumination (and almost any mention) on the subject of Billy Lee.  Lee, who was at Washington’s side through the Revolutionary War and was the most famous American of African decent of his time. While the book does show Washington’s evolving attitudes toward slavery and the slaves themselves, Wiencek’s ricocheting time line makes it hard to find continuity in the story. We never do hear how the plans Washington made in his will for housing and vocational training for the liberated slaves worked out, and the book’s last words are, illogically, those of Abraham Lincoln. I’m still trying to figure out where the editor was on that one.




An Imperfect Book

An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves REVIEW




Ultimately, Washington’s heroic status is undiminished, and one is led to believe that the country missed a great opportunity to build on his example. 

   I was left with the feeling that the great and revelatory work on Washington and slavery was yet to be done, but that Mr. Wiencek deserves credit for being the first to attempt such a Herculean task. I can’t recommend the book to the average reader, but if you are deeply interested (as I am) in the subject, then it’s the best one you will find. Especially since it’s the only one you will find.  And if you get the opportunity to invite Henry Wiencek over for a dinner party, do it! I think he’d make fascinating company.