You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but sometimes the cover makes you laugh and then you decide you should read it. That was the case with You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe. I saw it on NPR’s Best Books of 2020 List and laughed out loud. My interest was also piqued because I’ve recently been exposed to some George Washington history from both Hamilton the musical and Alexander Hamilton the book.
Two other things drew me to this book. First, it is written by a woman, which seemed a refreshing change from many other founding father biographies. Second, I appreciated that it was short. Even though I find George Washington interesting, I wasn’t ready to devote myself to a 1,000 page tome. I can only handle those once in a while and it hasn’t been that long since I read Alexander Hamilton. Clocking in at a comfortable 300 pages felt much more achievable.
I ended up listening to this book while on a road trip. I’m sure I lost some of the details with my wandering mind, but on the whole I found it interesting and informative. Of course, the downside to a manageable size is that the historical detail and discussion is somewhat limited. However, Coe managed to get through George Washington’s entire life with some fascinating detail. Some of the political intricacies that I’d read in Alexander Hamilton were missing, but I thought Coe did a good job with what she decided to focus on.
One point Coe made in her book was how other historians portrayed George Washington. She stated that they often go on about his muscular thighs and vigorously defend his sexual morality and virility. George Washington never had any children of his own. He married the widowed Martha Washington who had already had two children. Coe pointed out the historians who argue that Martha Washington (the healthy woman who had already had two kids) must have become barren because it’s not possible that George Washington was sterile. They also deny that George Washington may have become sterile from an STD. It was a long time ago. We don’t know what happened, but blaming George Washington’s lack of kids on Martha smacks of sexism, and I appreciate that Coe pointed it out. In this vein, Coe also discusses the common portrayal of George Washington’s mother as an uneducated, heartless shrew, which also seems unfair when you look deeper.
Coe also devoted a chapter to George Washington and slavery, which is often glossed over in U.S. History classes. Washington was a pretty run-of-the-mill slaveholder. He had his slaves whipped, went after those that ran away, and split up families. It’s true that he freed his slaves in his will, but not right away. Martha had to either die or free them herself. And slaves she owned from her first marriage were split between her children upon her death.
My least favorite part of this book was when Coe resorted to listing a bunch of facts. When Coe wrote about the Revolutionary War, she listed many of the battles, who won, and how many soldiers were killed and injured on each side. Maybe this is more informative in book form where you can skim over the list, and have some idea of the dates and number of soldiers involved. However, having someone read a bunch of numbers to you with no context is just painful and I didn’t learn anything from it.