Latest on GW: Author shows George as emancipator

George Washington may be the Commander of the Revolution and Father of the Nation, but he's needed a makeover since the cherry tree myth was felled.

Local historian Henry Wiencek may have the answer.

"He's actually a Westerner. He's a great frontiersman, he's a horseman, he's a great fighter, he's a loner. At the end, he rides into the sunset and he's gone, leaving nothing behind. He's almost like Shane," pontificated Wiencek recently over a pipe and a pint at Miller's. "I think we would understand him better if we could picture him on a horse, like John Wayne in Arizona in 1875."

Living a century earlier in a country known as Virginia, Washington didn't have much of a shot at the Ranger lifestyle. Instead, he led an underdog army to victory, resigned himself to the Presidency, and then happily retired to face his moral crisis with slavery. While he never summoned the executive will to abolish slavery, he does stand out as the only Founding Father to willingly free his own slaves.

In his new book, An Imperfect God, Wiencek lays out his understanding of Washington not as the Lone Ranger, but as the lone emancipator.

"There was really nothing mystical about slavery, it was all about money," argues Wiencek.

Like Thomas Jefferson, Washington was constrained by finances from acting on his manumission impulses. The difference between the two complicated Virginians, says Wiencek, is that Jefferson's political pragmatism warped his innate sense of liberty, while Washington's abhorrence of slavery grew only more intolerable, such that he literally could not rest in peace in the knowledge that he held people in bondage.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Garry Wills, who has just published a close examination of Jefferson's complicity in the perpetuation of slavery, and frequently finds himself at speaking engagements with Wiencek, applauds the treatment.

"I think it's terrific," he says of An Imperfect God. "In general, our nation has tried to mute this history. But it's being rewritten very deeply."

Wiencek moved to Charlottesville over a decade ago and has been taken for a UVA scholar ever since. It's an understandable mistake (as is the temptation to confuse him with another local demi-celebrity, Henry Weinschenk, who has stood up against the water authorities in defense of his car wash).

Wiencek is engaging, professorial, and nearly as tall as his commanding subject. It was 1992 when Wiencek moved south from New York to be close to the subjects of his last history, The Hairstons, and he plans to stay.

"Charlottesville was a shell of what it is now," he says. "It was perfectly congenial, and it was a great place to write and it still is," he recalls, adding "I love living in Virginia because history is so real here."

Henry Wiencek