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The great white fathers' failings: thoughtful new works by white authors sift through the conflicted views of Washington and Jefferson as Founding Fathers who were slave owners in the "land of the free".

An Imperfect God George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America

by Henry Wiencek Farrar, Straus & Giroux, November 2003 $26.00, ISBN 0-374-17526-8

"Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power

by Garry Wills Houghton Mifflin, November 2003 $25.00, ISBN 0-618-334398-9

It is an auspicious time for books to be published about powerful Southern white men and their views on race and slavery. It comes just as a once powerful Southern segregationist has been characterized as a hypocrite for fathering a child with a teenaged black maid. After the death of her father, U.S. Senator Strum Thurmond, Essie Mae Washington-Williams came nut of the shadows and announced her heritage, a subject that had been whispered about for her 78 years.

Although it happened long after slavery ended, the exploitation of Washington-Williams's 16-year-old mother by the 22-year-old Thurmond was an outgrowth of the slave tradition in which black women were routinely forced to have sex with slave masters and their sons. The hypocrisy of Thurmond's life is mirrored by the double standards of the freedom-loving founders who owned and consorted with slaves. Historians and social scientists have researched and documented how these abuses shaped later relationships between black and white Families and within the African American American fammily itself; Andrew Billingsley, E. Franklin Frazier, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin and numerous others have contributed to the wealth of books by African Americans on the subject.

Now in these latest accounts, both by white authors, George Washington's and Thomas Jefferson's dealings with their own human property and with the institution of slavery are examined irreverently. Washington is portrayed as both treacherous slave owner ant] a man wrestling inwardly with the issue. Jefferson, upon whom so much of the nation's ideology is based, apparently experienced no such inner struggle. He consistently argued against the intelligence of slaves and free blacks alike and maintained that slavery was both necessary and moral. Henry Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God, also notes that "when Washington looked back on his youth ... he spoke with surprising sharpness about the slave system and its corrupting effect on the masters."

Wiencek also wrote The Hairstons: An American Family in Black and White (St. Martin's Press, February 1999), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Garry wills has written extensively on historical and religious issues. His works have included Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America (Simon & Schuster, June 1992) and Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit (Doubleday, June 2000).

In An Imperfect God, Wiencek documents Washington's occasional discomfort with the business of slavery, but his total comfort with the convenience of flee labor. Washington's father was also the likely father of a child born to a mixed-race indentured servant, and Washington's father-in-law is widely known to have fathered a child with a black slave. Yet despite his professed distaste for the institution, Washington forced the sale of slaves when he foreclosed on a neighbor's property. "The money arising from the slaves to be paid to the hands of George Washington, Esq.," Wiencek quotes the sale documents.

Washington also allowed bizarre arrangements in his household involving his wife's black half-sister. Martha Washington kept the woman, Ann Dandridge, as a house slave or "colored house pet"--as the domestic slaves were called at Mount Vernon. Worse yet, Martha's son Jacky Cuslis, from her first marriage, had a "relationship" with Dandridge, his mulatto aunt, and out of that union a son was born. Wiencek writes: "It is difficult to believe that Jacky was not aware of his blood tie with Ann Dandridge. Certainly Ann knew it; her descendants knew her ancestry in detail, and they could only have learned it from her." Here, Wiencek appears to suggest that either could have avoided a sexual relationship. The mere idea that a female slave had any control over such alliances is untenable. Wiencek does allow that Jacky Custis was largely at fault. "The masters possessed absolute power over the slaves, and absolute power corrupts absolutely," he writes.

All the mixed-race liaisons in Washington's family lead up to the final question--which goes unanswered--about Washington's own reported biracial offspring. Wiencek explores in some detail the claim that Washington fathered a child named West Ford with a slave who was owned by another family member.

"We will probably never be certain one way or the other. DNA testing can prove only that West Ford was a member of Washington's family, not that he was or was not George Washington's son." What has fueled the insistence that the child was Washington's was his apparent fondness for the boy, who was often seen with him on riding trips and church visits. Washington had no "legitimate" children and was suspected to have been sterile from childhood illnesses. A July 1999 New York Times article resurrected historical accounts from Ford's family.

Thomas Jefferson is reputed, with more concrete evidence, to have fathered children with Sally Hemings, but what is markedly different in Wills's Negro President is that Hemings merits only brief references. Far more information about Hemings's relationship with Jefferson is contained in Wiencek's book. Despite its title, Negro President is not about Jefferson's relationships with specific "Negroes." It is an exploration of "the slave power" which had a profound impact on American history. Jefferson acquired the title "Negro President" because he was "elected" two months after the official 1800 election by a margin of 12 votes cobbled together from the three-fifths representation of slaves in congressional delegations and the Electoral College.

In effect, the slaves, who had no voting rights whatsoever, helped elect Jefferson. Yet he had little affection or even concern for their well-being, except as valuable necessities for slaveholders' economic survival. For example, "Jefferson said a slave woman brought a higher price than a man since she was the capital-replenisher," Wills notes, adding that Jefferson sold 85 of his slaves. He owned 199 in 1810. Jefferson opposed the international slave trade, but approved of and participated in the domestic trade, as did Washington.

Wills and Wiencek probed the political, economic and social forces that informed the decisions of the two presidents and framed the history of the new Republic.

RELATED ARTICLE: America's curious history.

The histories by Garry Wills and Henry Wiencek are among a recent nonfiction bookfest about the founders and slavery, including Gore Vidal's Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson (Yale University Press, November 2003, $22.00, ISBN 0-300-10171-6); R.B. Bernstein's Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, August 2003, $26.00, ISBN 0-195-16911-5); and Michael Knox Beran's Jefferson's Demons (Simon & Schuster, September 2003, $25.00, ISBN 0-743-23279-8).

--Pearl Stewart

Pearl Stewart, a former newspaper editor, teaches at Florida A&M University.
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Title Annotation:An Imperfect God George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America; "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power
Author:Stewart, Pearl
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2004
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