A New Book About George Washington Breaks All the Rules on How to Write About George Washington

Alexis Coe’s cheeky biography of the first president pulls no punches

The Landsdowne portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired as a gift to the nation through the generosity of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation)
smithsonianmag.com

No one would describe Alexis Coe’s unconventional biography of conventional biographical subject George Washington as boring. Starting with its cover illustration, a playful Washington grinning at the reader, You Never Forget Your First is a wink of sorts, at Washington biography and at the ways that Americans have very consistently misremembered the first president. Coe sets herself apart from the historians she refers to as the “Thigh Men” of history: biographers like Joseph Ellis, Harlow Giles Unger, and Ron Chernow, esteemed writers in their own rights but ones who seemingly focus on Washington as a marble Adonis (with impressive thighs—we’ll get to that), rather than as a flawed, but still impressive, human being.

Coe mixes up genre and presentation, beginning with a preface composed of listicles, with the first a set of basic things to know about Washington (“jobs held”). And the book is compact. While “weighty tome” is the typical format for founder’s biographies, this one comes in at just 304 lively pages. (Chernow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington was an astounding 904 pages.) But Coe’s offering is still a full biography, covering birth to death and the highlights of his life and career between. And, because it’s a biography, George Washington remains at the center. For Smithsonian magazine, I sat down to talk at length about Washington, Washington biographies, and where You Never Forget Your First resides in the founder’s canon. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You describe that when you told people you were writing a biography of George Washington, they would assume you’re writing about his social life and you would respond, “No, it’s a biography, like a man would write.” And I’ve seen elsewhere you’ve referred to this as a feminist biography. Is it? Or is this what it looks like when a feminist writes biography?

That happened all the time; in the doctor’s office, at Mount Vernon when I went to research. And I actually borrowed that phrase, I realized later, from my first book [about a murder case involving young, female lovers]. When newspapers would try to describe same-sex love and they were at a loss for a word to identify it because lesbian was still 40 years into the future, they would simply say, “You know, like a man would do.”

And so I know that when all else failed, and people seemed to be grasping at the concept, I remind them that women are fully formed humans who are interested in the presidency as much as they are interested in his marriage.

The book really just jumps up and asks you to pay attention; it’s not a book that you ease into. The preface presents a series of charts, like of the jobs Washington had, or the animals he raised, or the false information that still circulates about him. Other chapters begin with similar infographics. What was your approach to these?

If history is boring, it’s the historian’s fault. Obviously, the title is so provocative; it can get them to pick up the book, but how can I make them feel like they are well equipped to dive into George Washington’s life, the Revolutionary Era, to understand how someone fights for the British Army and ends up leading a rebellion against them? To understand Jefferson, Hamilton, the presidency?

I make these lists for myself [when researching], and it’s sort of like being [with me] in the archives. I wish readers could see everything, and they don’t get to. This is an offering from me to the reader, telling them, “You know how to read this book. You have everything you need to feel as though you’re an expert,”

And so there’s a ton of front matter, as I call it, that really introduces you to Washington as a whole person. We know that he’s the general, but we also have to acknowledge that another title he held was master. We should know that he was very into animals. We should know this his body was amazing not because he had great thighs, but because he survived so many things. There’s front matter in the beginning of the book and then there’s front matter in front of each section and then there are charts and graphs throughout the chapters.

I want this book to be a sort of equalizer and to be fun. History is fun, even when it’s difficult subject matter.

I was interested in your saying that people ask you, “Didn’t you approach Washington with reverence?” And you just didn’t have this reverent posture that previous biographers did. You just thought, “He’s a guy.”

I sometimes think that when Ellis and Chernow and all of these famous Pulitzer-Prize-winning historians were writing a book on Washington, they had to take an oath. Like, “I will write book in the exact same way. I will declare him too marble to be real, and then I will proceed just as the person before me did.”

The reverence jumps off the page. They’re so protective of him and are so impressed by him and his masculinity. I take [his masculinity] as a foregone conclusion. The diseases he survived taught me that, [as did] the war and the way that he was regarded by other people. I just don’t see why historians need to talk about it for pages and pages.

I don’t feel a need to protect Washington; he doesn’t need me to come to his defense, and I don’t think he needed his past biographers to, either, but they’re so worried about him. I’m not worried about him. He’s everywhere. He’s just fine. President Trump went to Mount Vernon and said, “Unless you put your name on things, nobody remembers you.” His name is everywhere. His name is on the city that Trump works in.

Instead of calling me irreverent, we should question why these men are so reverent and why we trust them to tell stories because that is, to me, a disconcerting bias. And a blind spot. My god, did they miss things. And they just repeat each other. In this pursuit of idolatry, they completely miss things and they have zero curiosity outside of what has been covered. They’re not interested in women. There’s just not variety, really until you look at Erica Dunbar and Never Caught. [Dunbar’s 2017 history, a National Book Award finalist, focuses on Ona Judge, an enslaved woman who ran for freedom and was pursued by George and Martha Washingto.] They’re not interested in considering other perspectives. I honestly didn’t know why certain people write books about him except to just have another book, to sort of write a book about Washington as if it was a check mark.

Do you think that this is a problem with biographies as a genre? After all, it was a genre designed to be about exemplary men!

I have a lot of issues with presidential biographies. This is not a problem particular to Washington, but it is acute when it comes to Washington biographies. If you read a biography on John Adams, they’re going to have a little bit of fun with it. They’re going to have fun with how verbose he is, his relationship with Abigail, his children. Everything is a little bit more comfortable.

What are Washington’s biographers missing, then?

Washington biographies need to be very different, going forward. And I hope that that is a contribution that I’ve made, that it is the start of change. It’s really important that, in a biography about Washington, we talk about what we know as historians, that we’re really honest, intellectually honest about what we saw in the archive. And that includes putting in anecdotes about Washington slapping an enslaved man because he could not lift a log on his own. Past biographers, and particularly Chernow, cannot deny that he was a slaveholder. They cannot deny that he would say he didn’t want to separate families, but sometimes did. Washington would say that his thoughts about slavery were changing, but he would talk about enslaved people in ways that showed that they were not.

Something that these biographers talk about is that Washington had very high expectations of other people, but if you just say that, I don’t know what that means. Does that mean that I expect you to be on time? Expecting someone to meet your needs, saying that generally—okay, I’d understand that quality. Imagining Washington assaulting someone he owns because he couldn’t lift a giant log on his own, that paints a very different picture and we need that there alongside all the other things that enable him to lead and win the Revolution and become the first president.

I loved the way you talked about Chernow and these other guys and their emphasis on Washington’s manly thighs.

To tell you the truth, I really never noticed Washington’s thighs in portraits, but [male biographers] wouldn’t stop talking about them. I’d never read a biography on a woman where they talked about her legs constantly. I’d never thought about a woman ... I’m thinking about someone like Sylvia Plath. I’d never looked at a photo of her and thought about her legs.

And the way that they would describe them, “He gripped the saddle with his thunderous thighs.” It was a little inappropriate, sometimes read like a romance novel. And I couldn’t really figure out why. Did they just really love his thighs? Were there a lack of great thighs in early America?

I Googled a portrait of Hamilton’s, just to see how they compared. They were also very nice, but ... why this fixation on [this part of] Washington’s masculinity. Then I would think about the things around sexuality and around reproduction that they also focused on. And together, what it told me was that they were very nervous about something. An example is, well, Washington had no biological children,but [the Thigh Men] don’t immediately say that he was the father to 15 wards during his lifetime.

He wrote them all very long letters. He was full of advice, so much advice. He was a really active father. He considered Martha’s children and grandchildren, he raised them, Washington considered them his own. So why don’t we?

And then [the Thigh Men] feel the need to explain [his lack of biological children], when it seems really obvious to me that Washington was unable to have children as a result of smallpox. And instead of just accepting that, they have to talk about his masculinity. They have to talk about how the reason that they didn’t have children was probably Martha’s fault, even though she had children so we know that she could, and there’s absolutely nothing to suggest that they were difficult childbirths. And yet, they introduce that as if it’s an option, so it’s misleading to the reader.

And from there, they really go off the rails. They start talking about how he was ... God forbid, anyone should suspect that he was gay or asexual or impotent. They jump ahead of you ten steps and start telling you why he isn’t, before you’ve even thought it because, honest, I wouldn’t have. I wouldn’t care enough, but they’re really nervous about this.

This defensiveness of Washington and of his masculinity is so conspicuous that I needed to point it out. And when you’re defending something, it also means you’re attacking something. So, they tend to defend men and attack women. And they attack his mother, and they really don’t want to attack Martha because she is a perfect foil to his mother, but when they have to, they’ll go after her ability to bear children, even though, again, she demonstrated that she could perfectly well.

I wanted to ask about race and slavery, too. You have these powerful moments in the book where you talk about Billy Lee, an enslaved man who was quite an important character in the life and exploits of Washington. But Billy Lee kinds of stands in for Washington’s attitude towards enslaved people in significant ways. What role do race and racism plays in the book?

Billy Lee is Washington’s best friend, his right-hand man. And it’s true, he was the exception in Washington’s mind, but to introduce him into the narrative whenever you need to make sure that people know that he could see black people as humans is a disservice to the entire production. There is a misconception that Billy Lee had always been owned, for example, by Washington because of the way that they talk about him.

[Other historians] also often say that Billy Lee was sold to Washington, which I hate. No, Washington went and bought [Billy Lee]. He was looking for slaves to purchase and that’s what he did. It’s a funny way of sort of shifting responsibility just a little bit to make them feel better.

Billy Lee served Washington during the Revolution and was injured in Washington’s service. He injured his knees twice, once during a fox hunt, once during the Revolution. And as a result, he couldn’t keep up. And when he couldn’t keep up, Washington retired him. But upon his death, Billy Lee was the only enslaved person who Washington liberated.

I know you know this, but the reason I review it is because we’re talking about one man out of hundreds of people he enslaved, and yet all I see throughout the narratives is Billy Lee. So if we’re going to talk about how exceptional Washington thought Billy Lee was, then we also have to talk about all the times he wrote that black people just didn’t work hard, that they didn’t seem to have much pride in their appearance when, in fact, he wasn’t giving them enough clothing sometimes to shield their bodies. Women were observed as being in tattered clothing. Their breasts were sometimes visible.

If we’re going to talk about Billy Lee, then we’re going to talk about the other people, too. And we’re going to say how he only saw someone who was dark skinned as human, as human as he was, when they literally almost killed themselves in service to him.

There’s a lot of magical thinking when it comes to Washington’s road to emancipating his slaves upon Martha’s death. The declaration that’s usually made is that Washington began to think differently during the Revolution, which I challenge. It’s not that he began to think differently. It’s that he became the most famous person in the world and was exposed to people who he respected, like the Marquis of Lafayette, who were telling him, “Listen, this is terrible and you could change the world and everyone would love you for it.” He was well aware from that moment forward that it did affect his legacy. Let’s be realistic about this, and let’s also talk about the times that he could’ve emancipated them.

And didn’t.

The [Thigh Men] often talk about how hypocritical Jefferson was. He wrote these beautiful words and then he enslaved people, including his own children. [But] Jefferson could not have changed the trajectory of America; he wasn’t important enough. Sure, he became really important, but Jefferson was not as important as Washington. He was not as famous as Washington. He was not as well-respected as Washington.

I interviewed Annette Gordon-Reed [a historian best known for her searing analysis of the Jefferson-Sally Hemings relationship] a few years ago and she told me that, had Jefferson emancipated his slaves, or argued for the emancipation of slavery immediately upon America’s independence, that we wouldn’t know his name. That’s not true for Washington. He could’ve done it, he didn’t. And had he done it, it could’ve changed the trajectory of America.

Washington biographers have shaped and really kind of mediated all understanding of George Washington, but I wonder about how George Washington did that himself. How is he the curator of his life and how are we, in a sense, receiving what Washington wanted us to have?

Washington wanted to shape his legacy, but he didn’t totally understand what we would think about him. I do feel as though the paving the road to emancipation for the people he enslaved [as he famously did in his will] was mostly legacy building, but it’s interesting to look at instances in which he didn’t know that he would be judged. He knew that he would be judged on slavery, but he didn’t know that he would be judged, for example, on [his treatment of Native] Americans. So as Washington was preparing his letters, his documents, he did not take anything out about how he didn’t trust Indians because they couldn’t fundamentally be trusted or how they basically just needed to give up their way of life.

He didn’t think that we would be horrified by any of that. And so he left it right there for us. So I think he was self-conscious, but he also couldn’t [completely self-censor] ... not about everything because he simply didn’t think it was bad.

In some sense he is his own archivist. His first introduction to the world is the journal that he writes about his experience in what would be the opening of what’s referred to as the French and Indian War in North America. During and after the Revolution, he is so particular about the care and preservation of his papers. I wondered how that struck you.

Washington did his best to shape the narrative. His journal was published when he was a young man, when he started a world war, and it got away from him a little bit. He became quite famous, but he was very sensitive, he did not like being ridiculed. Certain members of Parliament thought he was a dumb kid; he learned the importance of archives, at that moment. And he was also very aware that this was an incredible moment in history, as they all were. They were all careful with their papers. They sold their papers later. They knew the importance of it.

About Karin Wulf

Karin Wulf is executive director of the Omohundro Institute of American History & Culture and a professor of history at William & Mary. She is finishing a book on genealogy in early America, and completed key research for this essay as a fellow at the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon.

Read more from this author |
Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus