Tue 19 Feb, 2008
Tags: George W. Bush, Politics, Slaveowning, The Root
Ed Ball, the author of the award-winning Slaves in the Family and an early supporter of Traces of the Trade, has a fascinating essay at The Root, unpacking the slave-owning history of the Bush family.
The essay starts with the brief observation in Jacob Weisberg’s The Bush Tragedy that the ancestors of presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush owned slaves, and that this was a “family secret” of long standing. Ball then reviews historical records showing that the Walker family, the ancestors of the current president’s grandmother, Dorothy Walker Bush, were farmers who owned small groups of slaves along the upper Chesapeake during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The slave-owning pattern of the Bush clan was quite typical of slavery in the United States. Rather than engaging in plantation slavery, various farming ancestors of the 41st and 43rd presidents reported on census forms that they owned two, five, or seven slaves. One couple in the family reported owning as many as eighteen slaves at one time.
While Maryland did have some extensive plantations with many slaves each, the pattern of owning small numbers of slaves was quite common in the southern and border states, and was the usual pattern of slavery in the northern states.
Another common occurance may help to explain how the Bush family’s slave-owning past remained undisclosed until last year: after one of the Walkers, the current president’s great-great-great grandfather, lost his farm in the 1830s, he took his family west, settling near Bloomington in southern Illinois. This branch of the family worked as farmers, then amassed a fortune as wholesalers of dry goods in Missouri, and finally moved to New York and became even more wealthy in investment banking.
The current Bush family descends from this branch of the Walkers, and it is easy to see how there would be little indication of family ties to slavery, other than what, if anything, family members might voluntarily pass down to their descendants.
Ball also engages in an interesting bit of speculation about whether the Bush family’s slave-holding past could have affected the family’s attitudes towards slavery and race in later generations. This analysis, brief though it is, seems to have generated more commentary in the blogosphere than any other aspect of the essay, although Ball’s argument that the descendants of slaveowners should bear some accountability for their family’s past has also inspired some interesting philosophical discussion.