The Bush Family's Slaveholding Past

Was their dynasty built on slavery?

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The Walkers eventually quit farming and made a fortune as dry goods wholesalers in Missouri; later, they made another as investment bankers in New York. Nearly all the Bush/Walker family money dates from this more recent period, after the Civil War.

The family, nevertheless, seems to have looked back with nostalgia on their old slave hold. There are two pieces of evidence for this. In The Bush Tragedy, Jacob Weisberg refers to one of the later patriarchs, David Walker, as "a believer in eugenics and the 'unwritten law' of lynching," and cites as proof a letter Walker published in the St. Louis Republic in 1914. Black people, he wrote at the time, were more insidious than prostitution and "all the other evils combined."

The second piece of evidence is within living memory. In 1930, when they could afford it, the family again embraced the antebellum lifestyle. That year President Bush's great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, bought Duncannon plantation, an old cotton estate in South Carolina, to use as a hunting retreat and vacation home. His namesake, George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president's father, spent many youthful vacations on Duncannon, where teams of black cooks, valets, and drivers served him and opened doors when he approached. The Bush heirs no longer own Duncannon plantation; but for a time, the estate provided a version of the baronial life, to which the antebellum Walkers aspired, but never achieved.

The heirs of slaveholders are not responsible for the past; but in a better world, they would be accountable for that past. They would make an effort to deal with the slave story, talk about it, and try to come to terms with it.

At present the Bush political dynasty seems to be dying in misrule, finished off by a president who, as Weisberg writes, is "driven by family demons, overflowing with confidence, and lacking any capacity for self-knowledge." The Bush clan may not be capable of reckoning personally with the tragic inheritance of the slave days. But this week, on a state visit, the president sets foot in three countries that sent hundreds of thousands of captives to America. Today, some of the tens of millions of descendants of those captives want a White House that is accountable. In West Africa President Bush has a superb opportunity, like one presented to a physician attending a wound. A sound physician would chose instinctively to apply medicine, not simply turn away in denial and neglect.

Edward Ball is a contributor to The Root.