Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Review of You Never Forget Your First

I read Alexis Coe's recently published You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. Several things attracted me to it: it was written by a woman, which is rare for Washington biographies; it intentionally looked at his less-great qualities in order to humanize him; and it had an informal tone (for example, with an irreverent epigraph and early on a discussion of the crazy names he gave his dogs). What you end up with is a highly readable and illuminating book that helps us see him as a human being.

Doing so doesn't detract from his obviously critical role in the creation and preservation of the United States. I would say she has great respect for him but not reverence. You can also respect someone while noting the ways in which they are imperfect. Washington was already being put on a pedestal while he lived and we all imbibe that in U.S. schools.

I do feel like the book became more formal/traditional as it went on. She makes the case for calling Mount Vernon a "forced-labor camp" rather than a "plantation" (p. 43) but then uses the word "plantation" many times thereafter. The profane epigraph finds no match elsewhere in the book. At the same time, she pulls no punches about his attitudes toward his slaves or his thin-skinned reactions to political opponents. The latter contributes to our understanding of why he famously stopped after two terms. He was sick of the constant attacks on him by anonymous authors who he generally believed to be Thomas Jefferson and accomplices.

I enjoyed the book which, as Coe herself points out, isn't intended to be a massive brick of 900 pages full of detail, and I recommend it.


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