The image most people have of slavery involves a cotton plantation with a big white house, a black village where 300 people live in cabins and a cruel overseer in the wings. This was not the model followed by the ancestors of President George W. Bush when, 175 years ago, they enslaved about 30 people on the shores of the upper Chesapeake.

It is an apt time to contemplate the link between slavery and the White House. This week President Bush is in the midst of a six-day trip to Africa, his second tour of the continent. He will visit several countries – including Benin, Ghana, and Liberia – from which the United States once drew slaves. That the trip falls on either side of President's Day, which honors statesmanship in the White House, makes the occasion all the more fitting. The moment is mature for the president to speak about slavery, especially given his personal connection to slavery's legacy.

A new book by Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy, mentions in passing that at one time some of the president's family owned slaves. Weisberg doesn't dwell on the links between the White House and the antebellum past except to say the Bush clan's story is a long-held "family secret." The Bush Tragedy, a revealing book about family dynamics in the Bush political dynasty, treats the slavery matter only briefly, focusing instead on the "spectacular, avoidable flame-out" of the receding administration. But the story that joins the 43rd president to predecessors who held title to dozens of people bears retelling in detail.

Advertisement

The skeletal facts surfaced in April 2007, when an amateur historian named Robert Hughes published his research in the IllinoisTimes, a small paper out of Springfield. Hughes found census records showing that during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, in Cecil County, Maryland, five households of the Walker family, the president's ancestors via his father's mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had been slaveholding farmers. The evidence is simple but persuasive: genealogies of the Bush family match up with census data that counted farmers who used enslaved workers. With this, the president joins perhaps fifteen million living white Americans who trace their roots to the long-gone master class.

It's not as though the president is the only politician whose family owned slaves. Of the first eighteen presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses Grant, twelve owned people, eight of them while in office. At one time, Andrew Jackson was even a slave trader. Since Emancipation in 1865, a number of presidents have come from families that once contained slave masters. Even the current presidential hopefuls are likely to have slave owners among their ancestors. The descendants of slaveholders do not wear special tattoos or announce themselves in secret handshakes, but most know who they are.

The tragic story of America's slave days inspires disabling levels of fear among whites and anger among blacks. Probably neither the 43rd president nor his father, the 41st, possesses the introspection needed to grasp the relationship between the Bush family's slaveholding past and its present circumstances without escaping into defensiveness. Still, President Bush has talked about slavery from several microphones, most memorably in a 2003 speech on Gorée Island, one of the "slave castles" in West Africa from which captive youth and children were dispatched to the Americas. Speechwriters likely supplied the words on that occasion when the president said, "slavery was one of the greatest crimes of history." But the words fell short of an accounting by the White House for America's role in the Middle Passage, and they came before the revelation of the Bush family's own link to the slave past.

Advertisement

As for the African Americans in this tale, the Walker family slaves, neither names nor biographical details about them have survived. According to the genealogist who uncovered the records, Robert Hughes, the census accounts show that they lived at four different farms in Cecil County, Maryland, on a string of land called Sassafras Neck, which separates two slender rivers that empty into upper Chesapeake Bay. There, in 1790, William and Sarah Davis, direct ancestors of the president, owned seven people, while another branch of the family owned five. Twenty years later, in 1810, a third couple in the president's ancestral clan were counted as masters to eighteen people. The last appearance of the family as slaveholders of record comes in 1830, when George E. and Harriet Walker, great-great-great grandparents of President George W. Bush, owned 321 acres and two slaves, a female between 10 and 24 and a male between 24 and 36. The namelessness of the slaves is the fault of the so-called slave schedules used in the census, which called for nothing more than approximate ages.

With their small farms, the Walkers and their cousins did not belong to the class of oligarchs, whose vast plantations held scores or hundreds of workers. I've looked, and there were dynasties in Cecil County, places like Cherry Grove, former residence of a Maryland governor, and Mt. Harmon, a vast tobacco estate with a Georgian mansion. The president's forebears probably saw themselves as little people in competition with these fat-cat neighbors.

Still, all slaveholders were also slave traders. The president's family had to avail themselves of a slave auction on at least two occasions: initially, to buy people, and later, when a Walker farm failed, to sell some of the same people, much the way a stockholder liquidates an investment. No story has surfaced about how it happened, but in the mid-1830s, it appears that George E. Walker, the president's third great-grandfather, lost his land. After that, in 1838, he packed his family into a wagon and went west, settling in southern Illinois on a homestead near the town of Bloomington. It is from this branch of migrants that the current Bush clan descends.

Since the Walkers, in effect, declared bankruptcy, and there is no evidence they kept slaves after 1838, it is difficult to follow a money trail from the family's commercial stake in slavery to the White House. However, before he took his family west, it's likely that George Walker sold the people he owned, handing them off to a speculating slave dealer; thereby financing the family's fresh start in Illinois. Things get worse when you contemplate the probable circumstances. In the 1830s, the old tobacco economy of Maryland and Virginia was waning, while the new king, cotton, had caused Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to boom. The tobacco states were selling tens of thousands of slaves to the cotton states, and sending these people south. It is quite possible the Walker slaves were marched 500 miles from Maryland to Alabama to end up on a giant cotton plantation, where the work regime – large crews on vast, unshaded fields – was crueler than the one they'd left behind.

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."

Advertisement

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.