Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Sins (and Shortcomings) of our Father: My Review of Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First

Just finished listening to (thanks Audible!) the latest biography of George Washington: You Never Forget Your First by Alexis Coe. I was inspired to give this biography a listen by HISTORY’s recent “Washington” docudrama mini series. 

I have mixed feelings about this book. 

1) First, the listicles and factual asides sprinkled throughout are a very nice touch. 

2) The modest length and more relaxed (at times, even fun) tone of the book makes it much more approachable than some of the mammoth tomes written about the father of our country. This is a much easier book to read, for example, than the 904-page Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow. 

3) It is refreshing to have a female historian’s perspective on Washington - a man whose biographies are almost all written by men.  Nevertheless, I care more about getting to the truth and heart of Washington than I do about the sex or gender of the author.  In this day and age of political correctness, however, I find myself increasingly in the minority in that opinion since the whole notion of truth is often considered dependent on identity politics. 

Thus, most reviews and quite a bit of the promo surrounding this book touts the fact that Alexis Coe is a woman.  To which I say “Great,” but it’s not the most important aspect of this book. Not at all. Although....

I did chuckle when she talked about how some of the male biographers emphasize the size of Washington’s thighs. She is right about that, and it’s nice to read a bio that doesn’t care about such things. 

4) Coe does shed some light on interesting, and often unflattering, aspects of Washington’s life with which many Americans are unfamiliar. Yet she and/or the book’s promoters often overstate some of the misconceptions or some of the facts that she brings to light. For example, the book tells us that George Washington was indeed the first President under the new U.S. Constitution but did not live in the White House. John Adams was the first to do so. This is hardly revolutionary information. Anyone with even a mediocre knowledge of early US history is well aware of this.

5) Coe’s take on Washington’s dealings with American Indian / Native American tribal nations is critical and very one-sided. I have no problem with certain aspects of Washington’s life being criticized, but let’s be fair and balanced about it. Don’t just give us half the information - selecting the parts of history which fit your narrative and make your subject look bad, while ignoring the parts that provide crucial context to your subject’s decisions. The reality is that Washington respected Native Americans, much more so than some of his successors such as (most notoriously) Andrew Jackson. 

6) Slavery is indeed the most difficult and most vexing aspect of Washington’s legacy. Coe shines a big spotlight on this, and brings to the forefront some important and impressive research that she did on many of the enslaved persons who labored in bondage for the Washington family.  (See my article “Should We Honor a Slave Owner?” for more of my take on this difficult subject.)

7) Many reviewers hail her biography as “evenhanded,” but the truth is that Coe aligns herself more with the Howard Zinn school of history than with any kind of balanced look at US history. This isn’t always wrong. I do appreciate those historians who bring important attention to previously marginalized people and figures in history. But in their quest to eschew the traditional “Great Man” approach to history, people like Coe and Zinn often forget (or choose to ignore) the FACT that many (actually most) of the common, ordinary men and women in history (including, often, people of color), were the ones who ELEVATED certain people like Washington to the status of “great man.”  

As an example, it was a person of color - namely, Richard Allen, the bishop and founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church - who (as a contemporary of Washington) preached one of the most eloquent and memorable eulogies of the man following Washington’s death. 

Overall, I recommend Coe’s book as a worthwhile and succinct contribution to the field of study surrounding George Washington. But I do so with the caveat that hers is not the only Washington biography one should read. 

In interviews, Coe has criticized past biographers of Washington (those male biographers she likes to contrast herself against) as being too reverent, not sufficiently “curious,” and too “protective” of Washington. “I don’t feel a need to protect Washington,” Coe tells Smithsonian magazine in an interview. “[H]e 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.”

While I agree that historical study should cover all the relevant facts and should eschew blind worship, I disagree with Coe that Washington’s legacy is “just fine.” 

The United States is very polarized today. We need people to help unite us, not divide us. We need people like George Washington. But if too many biographers like Coe come along and focus on the negatives — and do so without providing a full and fair context - then Washington will lose his ability to unite us. 

And we will suffer for it. 

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