My “first” was Coolidge. My first venture into presidential biography, that is, and specifically, Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. I’ve always loved history, but my fondness and proclivity for presidential history has reigned supreme prior to and after my “first.” Lately, though, close readers of my reviews (and thank you!) will notice my recent affinity and reappraisal of George Washington, the United State’s “first.” President, that is. I even went to Mount Vernon, his famed estate, for the first time last year and loved it. All this is to say, when I saw Alexis Coe’s 2020 book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington at Barnes and Noble, and it had the air of being more … cheeky, as one blurb put it, I couldn’t resist. And indeed, Coe brought the 18th century Virginian to life in an often funny way, and she herself, was funny. But also informative!
So, Coe isn’t oblivious to what was she was undertaking in writing a biography about Washington. Given he’s … George freaking Washington, there are quite literally thousands of books about him, some quite esteemed, like Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life, which won the Pulitzer Prize. What sets Coe’s apart from Chernow’s and other biographies of Washington isn’t that she’s a woman biographer writing a biography about Washington, although that is certainly the case (as Coe highlights, when she told people of her endeavor, they figured, as one does with women biographers, they must be writing about the women around the historical man, or some other oppressed persons), but I think that she approached Washington without any intention for bombastic interpretation, primarily, masculine bombast, or to put it as she calls the Chernows of the world, she’s not going to be the “Thigh Men of Dad History,” roused by Washington’s manliness (seriously, Chernow and others seem weirdly taken in by Washington’s muscular thighs). In so doing, Coe elucidates the less-talked about facets of Washington, like his off-the-battlefield successes (as a spymaster and a diplomat), and corrects still long-attributed myths to him (for instance, that he had wooden teeth, which makes no sense; his teeth came from his slaves and animals he kept). Coe’s book is also set apart by being accessible! When we’re talking about history, I see it as vital to be accessible so that those beyond nerds like me will actually read and learn about Washington and the early days of the United States. Her books is exceedingly accessible at only 206 pages (in addition to the preface and introduction) that flow fast and chirpy, for lack of a better word, along with the fun segments, such as “George Washington at a Glance,” with his “greatest hits” and “pettiest acts,” or his “dislikes” and “frenemies.” As I said, too, you wouldn’t think a book about Washington would be laugh-out-loud funny, but I laughed out loud, particularly, I should say, at Washington’s marginalia for James Monroe’s book, A View of the Conduct of the Executive, in the Foreign Affairs of the United States, a 473-page critique of Washington’s administration. Monroe was tasked with upholding Washington’s policy of neutrality toward Britain and France when they warred, and Washington, famously restrained and tactful, is annoyed with his book.
Washington was a man, with all the fallibilities of a man, but he was also our first, and reckoning with the first means trying to parse fact from fiction, and myth-making from reality. And Coe’s book shows that reality is far more interesting than the myth-making! Washington is a fascinating human being when freed from the myths and the deity status given to the Founding Fathers. Admittedly, as I’ve already stated, I can’t help but have a fondness for Washington because of the two historically unprecedented acts he did, shocking the Western world: a.) stepping down as general and relinquishing power after winning the Revolutionary War; and b.) relinquishing power yet again by setting the two-term precedent for presidents that would last until 1941.
As I’ve also repeatedly remarked whenever I read history: I’m astonished by how much of history turns on such bouts of luck. Yes, to be certain, the “Great Man” idea of history is flawed, whereupon individual men are the makers of history, but what if Washington died on his trip to Barbados (his only trip abroad and with his half-brother Lawrence) in 1751? Or at any point during the long Revolutionary War? Or during the French-Indian War, which I didn’t realize he helped spark and was something of a “global war” at the time? Or after the myriad illnesses that befell him? In fact, in a bit of macabre humor (to me at least), Coe lists all the diseases Washington had and survived, including, to name a few, diphtheria, malaria (six different times!), smallpox, tuberculosis (twice!), and dysentery. What ultimately killed “our first,” though, was … a sore throat. Or more accurately, the favored medical remedy at the time: bloodletting. That’s something I think about on a fairly regular basis: The vast majority of people living in the United States today will survive a strep throat. The most powerful human being in the United States 224 years ago could not. And he was only days away from making it to 1800, too! Alas, I digress. My point being, if Washington had died prematurely, like many of the men in his family, what would have become of the rebellious colonists? Of their war for independence? Of America’s founding, if it got to that point? I don’t think such momentous history can turn upon one singular man, but it’s also hard to extricate Washington from it and see how it manifests, all the same.
Obviously, no biography of Washington, including Coe’s, could be considered complete or accurate without spending considerable time on the fact that Washington owned slaves, sold slaves, was apoplectic (Coe’s rightful word) to hunt his runaway slaves down, tore families apart, and only in death did he finally free his slaves and even that has ample qualifiers (like it still depended upon Martha Washington, for example). I think what’s particularly worth emphasizing, as Coe does, is that we think of men like Washington as captured by the forces of their time. That it isn’t fair to judge them by the standards of 2023 and our obvious abhorrence of slavery. Yet, people of his time freed their slaves while still alive. Maybe you could argue that people would view Washington’s act of freeing his slaves, owing to his station as the first American president and a living American legend and celebrity, differently than others, if he did so while living, but it remains the case that his contemporaries were doing it.
I also learned a few things about Washington from this book, like the aforementioned point that Washington helped light the fuse for the French and Indian War, or that Washington had no biological kids of his own (but he did have rather petulant step-children), and that owing to the many diseases he contracted, including smallpox, and the poor state of his teeth, Washington must’ve been rather ugly. Sorry, “our first,” but it seems true enough!
Sometimes the first may not be what we pictured, and there may even be a tinge of regret about certain aspects of the first, but the first is still our first, and we can’t time machine it away. Washington was the first for the United States, and I think in those two important aspects (relinquishing power first as a general and then as president) is the best “gift” he ever gave a fledgling nation whose union he was always committed to. It’s unfortunate, to say the least, that Washington is pockmarked by more than smallpox by slavery and his treatment of Native Americans.
If you’re looking for a breezy, but enlightening, fair and funny, and importantly, accessible, appraisal of George Washington’s life and service to the United States, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than Coe’s biography of our “first.”