Books by Fritz Hirschfeld

Released: Nov. 1, 1997

Recently several writers (e.g., Conor Cruise O'Brien in The Long Affair) have critically examined the racial hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson, who preached equality but practiced slavery. Now fellow Virginia slaveholder George Washington receives like treatment. Hirschfeld, the editor of the John Hancock Papers, shows that in the pre-Revolutionary era Washington ran a successful plantation with slave labor and participated in the most brutal aspects of the slave system: He purchased and sold slaves, pursued runaways with vigor, and subjected wayward slaves to harsh punishments. The Revolutionary War and its Enlightenment ideology changed that: both because of concerns about his reputation and rapidly developing moral doubts about the justice of slavery. Mostly drawing on Washington's own correspondence and diaries and those of contemporaries, Hirschfeld shows how Washington's attitudes toward slavery evolved during his life. Prewar plantation records show that he assembled a large slave population, apparently without moral qualms, as his landholdings expanded, but in 1775 he reversed an earlier decision to bar African-Americans from military service. By 1779 he was expressing a distaste for the slave trade, and in 1786 he even wrote, ``I never mean . . . to possess another slave by purchase; it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by the legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.'' He refrained from breaking up slave families, even though this practice made his plantation unprofitable, and finally in his will he freed his slaves. Hirschfeld shows that Washington's private dislike of slavery didn't lead him as president to exercise his moral leadership to end the institution. Hirschfeld speculates that Washington understandably didn't want to jeopardize the new nation's unity. Describing his final attitude as ``lukewarm abolitionism,'' the author concludes that Washington's was a mixed legacy. A thoughtful and well-documented work that does not diminish Washington's greatness, but shows the iconic Gilbert Stuart figure at his most morally vulnerable. (20 illustrations) Read full book review >