Like many before him, Henry Wiencek finds George Washington "elusive" and "contradictory." Elusive partly because he was embarrassed about his lack of formal education, contradictory because he wrung his hands over slavery but remained a slaveholder throughout his life. But near the end, Washington demanded that all his unpaid servants be freed upon his death. "Washington filled almost three pages with explicit instructions for the manner in which his slaves should be freed," writes Wiencek, who won the National Book Critics Award in 1999. "He specified that the [slave] children should be educated and trained so that they could support themselves as free people."

It's unfortunate that Washington waited until the last moment to turn this good deed; had he done otherwise—had he found a way to liberate the slaves earlier—that precedent, like the other important precedents he set, might have accelerated general emancipation, or it might have caused South Carolina to leave the Union before it could haul the rest of the country into a devastating war. But might-have-beens, however interesting, don't add up to much, and one must at least give points to Washington for being unique among his peers: "No other Founding Father…set his slaves free, and certainly none of them contemplated educating slaves as Washington did."

In a sense, it's peculiar that Washington would have any concern about his slaves' future. If he felt badly for plucking his slaves' teeth to be implanted in his own jaw, he never said so in writing. If he regretted sending recalcitrant slaves to an almost certain harsh death in the West Indies (a threat he kept up till 1793), such scruples were not public knowledge. If before donning "his Olympian raiments as Revolutionary ...

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