About the very first president let’s start at the very beginning. George Washington didn’t have wooden teeth. The father of our country told a lie from time to time, sometimes a whopper. And for all the praise he has received over the decades, GW didn’t exactly free all his slaves when he was safely resting in his grave.
In her form-shattering and myth-crushing book on one of the 18th century world’s greatest figures—and bearing maybe the 21st century’s worst title: “You Never Forget Your First” — Alexis Coe does more than deal with the low-hanging fruit of the Washington cherry tree. She provides a fresh look at the first president and, just as important, at the first precedents he set — precedents both selfless (limiting his time in offices to two terms) and sober (establishing the dignity of the office). We can thank him for that, and we can thank Coe, in her effort to make him more accessible and real, for recognizing that.
This is not biography as practiced by the leading academic (Joseph Ellis) or popular historians (David McCullough), who, Coe poignantly points out —perhaps reaching for a niche for herself and for her book —are men. But while this is the art of biography practiced by a woman, it isn’t women’s history, and though the ranks of tenured historians on campus still lean heavily male, there are many respectable and indeed remarkable female historians prominent on the literary scene today — Jill Lepore on the Harvard campus and in the pages of the New Yorker, Doris Kearns Goodwin on the best-seller lists across the decades, and Candice Millard out on the Kansas plains providing vibrant perspective on both James Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt, plus many, many more, in collegiate seminar rooms and big university lecture halls. Hello, Ellen Fitzpatrick at the University of New Hampshire and Susan Dunn at Williams College.
Coe examines myths with mirth, and writes history with humor. “The father of this country was no father,” she says, but doesn’t leave the subject with a well-turned phrase. She goes on to explain, on the same page, “In a young, monarch-weary America, Washington’s lack of heirs gave him a distinct political advantage; it comforted people to know that he had not bloodline to preserve, no power-hungry scion to worry about.” And she takes on the tropes of history, beginning with the characteristics male historians have applied to Mary Washington, George’s mother (whining, headstrong, unbending, forbidding, strong-willed — and those are but a sampling of 28 she unearths from Ron Chernow alone). She says: “Everyone knows that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a woman is probably a shrew.” Good contribution to our understanding.
There are, to be sure, a surfeit of good lines here: “Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery,” about Washington meeting Martha Custis. “In 1772, 13 years after Washington hung up the uniform of a colonel in the Virginia militia, he squeezed himself back into it,” about Washington’s decision to wear military garments for his Charles Wilson Peale portrait. “Washington was quietly campaigning before there was anything to officially campaign for, and it worked,” about his visits to churches, taverns and important homes at the Second Continental Congress. “Washington wanted nothing more than to make some of those recently issued United States dollars,”] about his preoccupation with his finances. And one more, with real importance to the future political character of his country:
“If Washington has been a king, Americans waiting to celebrate him on the road to New York would have bowed, but since the country had evicted the monarchy, it was Washington who bowed to them.”
There is something engaging in this breezy book, and something efficient, too. She dispatches with Washington’s many military battles with a five-page “at-a-glance” chart of battles won (two at Trenton, for example), lost (Germantown), and tied (Monmouth). And if this volume is criticized for being unconventional, even eccentric, let’s remember that many men (especially Edmund Morris, who inserted himself into the biography of Ronald Reagan) have written unconventional biographies. Besides, she shares the admiration that male historians have had for Washington, though her approbation is not unalloyed. She has the de rigueur quote from King George on Washington’s voluntary departure from power (“If [Washington] does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”) but also points out, “Half the country considered itself politically opposed to him.”
The first president took extreme caution in following Constitutional guidelines that the 45th president follows with less precision. “He was extremely careful to satisfy every requirement of the office; a false move might kill the infant nation in its crib,” she writes.
But in the end, Coe sees Washington as not so very different from the incumbent chief executive in at least one regard, though she clearly did not have Donald J. Trump in mind when she wrote that “for all [Washington’s] talk of unity, he had come to see people as for or against his administration and had little patience for criticism.”
While this surely should not be the only biography of Washington students of our founding should read, it is an accessible look at a president who always finishes in the first ranks of our leaders. It is, moreover, a reminder that, in a slight revision of an unfortunate phrase, we should never forget our first.
YOU NEVER FORGET YOUR FIRST: A BIOGRAPHY OF GEORGE WASHINGTON
By Alexis Coe
Viking, 304 pp. $27
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.