This book opens up with a chart listing all the things that the public consciousness “knows” about George Washington, right next to facts debunking those myths. Which is what they are: myths. As one of America’s Founding Fathers, the man who led the country in the Revolutionary War, and the first President of the United States, he has become more a mythologized figure than an actual person for most people. And as Coe points out in her introduction, even the most rigorous historian and scholar has a tendency to have blind spots where he’s concerned. In her funny, tongue in cheek preface, she notes that women historians have been relegated to writing about “womanly” subjects where Washington is concerned: his wife, his mother, his domestic spaces. When people asked what she was writing about Washington, she had to tell them, “No, it’s a biography. Like a man would write.”
And the book does obviously delve into subjects barely covered or ignore by past historians, mostly to do with things that shaded him in a not so great light, or things involving overlooked segments of people whose lives didn’t make much of a dent in the historical record, because they weren’t legally people: women, to some extent, and enslaved people. This book never misses an opportunity to point out Washington’s relationship to his slaves.
The preface and introduction were absolutely delightful (she takes male historians to task for things like glorifying Washington’s thighs, and painting his mother as a shrew), but that did mean the rest of the book was a bit of a let down. It’s mostly straight-up history from there on out, even as Coe is trying to cover things that haven’t been covered very much in the past. The book is also interspersed with charts and interludes, that I don’t imagine would fare well over audio. Titles from these include: “A Sampling of Ron Chernow’s Descriptions of Mary Washington,” “Diseases Survived,” “All the President’s Animals,” and “Frenemies” (which includes quotes from people like Thomas Jefferson about Washington both before and after his Presidency). It also has some scathing charts, like the one that details how the Washingtons’ dithering on freeing their slaves split up a family across five properties, some of whom never saw each other again.
Things I learned from reading this book:
*Washington started the French and Indian War by attacking some French troops who were asleep in the woods instead of talking to them first. He was on a diplomatic mission at the time.
*He ate the same breakfast for most of his life: fried hoecakes drenched in butter and honey.
*He did not have wooden teeth or chop down a cherry tree, and he did not free all his slaves upon his death. Coe points out that he is often touted as being the only Founding Father to do this, but that’s because many of them freed their slaves in their lifetimes. Washington also didn’t free the slaves he owned upon his own death, but that of his wife, because he didn’t want to split up the families created when her slaves married his. Also, it would have sent him into financial ruin, so why not just leave that problem to your heirs instead of dealing with it yourself?
*Apparently he alienated a bunch of people during his presidency? He was universally beloved before becoming president, which he didn’t even run for, but was elected by the electoral college unanimously. By the end of it, half the country didn’t like him and he’d had to replace his entire cabinet.
*Look, Hamilton taught me that his decision to keep his presidency to two terms was solely a noble decision, and it was partly that, but also the dude just wanted to save face and get out while he could still control some of the narrative and turn his reputation around.
*Also! Phillis Wheatley was one of the first black authors published in the US, but it turns out she was published because she’d written a poem that was pro-Washington and pro-Revolution that Washington had read, and he wanted to boost morale and keep the threat of abolition from ruining the Revolution. (The south would not have supported it if it meant losing their slaves.)
One downside for me reading this is that it’s my first Washington biography, and since Coe is in large part writing against previous biographers (or in concert with them), I felt like I was missing a lot of the story. You get the general gist of his life, and the parts that are normally glossed over or ignored, but you miss the stuff that has been written about a lot. So, I would recommend reading this with that in mind, and maybe checking out another biography of him as well.
I think ultimately that Coe succeeded in writing a history book about Washington that humanizes him. She writes with the same tone about him doing stupid shit like taking up arms against whiskey distillers who were refusing to pay taxes as she does his talented spycraft in the war, which she and many have argued was his real greatest contribution, and not leading armies.
[3.5 stars, rounding up]