I was intrigued by the fanfare surrounding the release of Alexis Coe’s biography of George Washington, cheekily titled You Never Forget Your First. It seems that biographers of our first president are almost exclusively men, and that these biographies rely heavily on certain anecdotes about Washington’s virtue that have become canonized as fact. Coe’s biography is heralded as a fresh perspective that adds new dimension to our understanding of George Washington. Although I rarely pick up presidential biographies to read for pleasure, I was curious about this one.
The very first pages dispel some of the common myths about Washington. (Spoiler alert!) His teeth were not wooden. He could in fact tell a lie. He did not wear a powdered wig. Coe relies on a lot of original source material to recreate Washington’s life. She quotes letters and diary entries, as well as newspaper accounts and census records. Part of what makes her biography feel fresh is in how she interprets the women in George’s life. George’s mother, for example, is often written off as a cold, uncaring woman. Coe supposes that she’s much more of a realist. Mary Washington was widowed by thirty-five, and left with five children, no property, and no money. During a time when wealth and class dictated opportunity, she had neither. Despite her station, she was able to help George acquire connections and an education that helped position him for all that he achieved.
George’s story is peppered with familiar historical characters and events. Thomas Jefferson, James, Madison, and Alexander Hamilton all appear. One of my great takeaways from this book is that the struggle to define federal versus states’ rights and responsibilities was as passionately debated then as it is today. The role of the United States in foreign affairs was as much a flashpoint amongst our founding fathers as it is for current leaders. It’s easy to read this book and apply the arguments and lessons of yesteryear to current events.
Coe doesn’t shy away from some unpleasant or ambiguous truths. She gives a clear-eyed account of the military and political battles lost as well as those won (and there were more of the former than the latter). Washington was a slave owner with a complicated outlook and history of both slave tracking and granting qualified freedom. By the time George Washington completed his second term, he had very few friends left in the political establishment. The toll of trying to make the correct decisions was amplified by the responsibility he felt to help shape the scope of the presidency as well as the reputation and longevity of this experimental nation. The outlook for success was not assured in the beginning. Coe effectively makes the case that George Washington sacrificed a great deal to help put the United Sates on track to be a viable self-governed nation. I think Coe succeeded in adding something new and worthwhile to our understanding of our first president.
Review by Emily Read, our Development Director.
To place a hold on the print copy, click here.