PW: In your last book, The Hairstons, you explored issues of race within one family. How did you turn to George Washington, in An Imperfect God, to further look at race in America?
Henry Wiencek: I was interested in the revolutionary period in general. I wanted to look into that paradox that we fought a war for freedom and liberty, yet we didn't free the slaves. It was actually my agent who suggested putting Washington into the mix. He suggested a biography, which seemed an enormous undertaking to me. I put the two ideas together, and the possibilities began to emerge. It was at that time that the West Ford story got into the news—the possibility of Washington's having had a child with a slave—and that fascinated me, because even though it seemed very unlikely that Washington was the father, it seemed very likely this slave was kin to Washington. I wanted to look into that and see, did Washington know this young man? What influence did that have on him?
The main thing that drew me in was that Washington freed his slaves. All the biographers and historians mention that, but never seem to realize how astounding that was. Washington was the only founding father who did that. I was wondering again, why did he do that, when other members of his family did not? That led me to believe there was a very peculiar dynamic going on. When I read Washington's will, that supposition was proved. The emancipation clause in Washington's will is a very vehement clause—it's clear that he's commanding his family in no uncertain terms to do that.
PW: Your research is stirring up controversy among Washington scholars. What is that about?
HW: I sense some unhappiness emanating from Mt. Vernon because I've given so much attention to the West Ford story. I think they feel this was put to rest a couple of years ago. I end up agreeing with their position that Washington was likely not West Ford's father, but in going through the records, I found documents their search had overlooked which say that it's possible.
I argue that West Ford was probably the son of one of Washington's nephews. And Washington's brother, who would have been the grandfather, seems to have tried to get rid of West Ford, but his wife, Hannah, tried to protect West Ford and called for him to be set free, to be educated and to be taken care of. These conflicts are fascinating because they show how these illicit relations caused anxiety within these planter families at that time. I also argue that his meeting West Ford may have been the cause of Washington's sudden conversion to emancipation in 1789.
PW: In a recent Atlantic Monthly article, H.W. Brands argues we've become too reverential toward the founding fathers. Do you agree?
HW: I'm not so sure I would agree, because I think the founding generation is really the source for many of our values. We look to them for our identity and the definition of who we are and what we stand for. I don't think we can study the founders too much. There are always new lessons to be learned, oddly enough, even on the subject of race. Much of this information in my book about Washington is new, so we're learning his legacy on race for the first time.
PW: What interested you in the subject of race relations in the first place?
HW: I'd researched it for The Hairstons. I spent a lot of time with black family researchers. For them, this question of their origins is one of the things that drives them to search into their past. I think that lies at the foundation of what our national identity is. Every now and then, the idea surfaces that we are a white nation, and when you go back to the origins of the nation, you find that's not true. We have always been to a significant extent a mixed-race people.