Coe is only the third woman to write a complete Washington biography, and the first to do so in at least 40 years. And, she claims, the male gaze of other biographers has distorted our impressions of the first president into something that is both less accurate and less interesting.
“He’s recognizable by everyone, but what do you actually know about him?” she said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Consider the cherry tree story — it’s a myth created in 1800 by Washington’s first biographer, Parson Weems.
Also, he could tell a lie, which really came in handy with the masterful spying operation he ran during the Revolutionary War.
And what about those allegedly wooden teeth? Yes, he had horrible teeth, Coe explains, but his dentures weren’t ligneous; they were made of ivory, cow and horse teeth, and sometimes human teeth removed from the people he enslaved. (He would pay them for their teeth, Coe writes, although not at market rate.)
So why call the book “You Never Forget Your First” if we have forgotten who Washington really was?
“Whenever we think of our first love or our first friend, our first experience doing anything, we don’t have the sharpest memory of it,” Coe explained. “We tend to romanticize it, and that’s what happened with George Washington.”
Many male historians have fallen victim to this romanticizing, too, she said. In other biographies, “there’s just a lack of interest in issues outside of his masculinity, outside of military endeavors, outside of the ‘great man’ history and mythologies we tell about our nation,” she said.
Most male biographers write little about his mother, Mary Ball Washington. When they do mention her, she’s described as an uncouth, illiterate shrew who tried to control, and often embarrassed, her distinguished son. (See: Chernow, Ron.)
But when Coe looked for primary sources to back this up, she said the evidence just wasn’t there. Chernow, who won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for his much praised biography “Washington: A Life,” referenced secondhand sources who referenced other secondhand sources, she maintains. (Chernow did not respond to an email seeking comment.)
In fact, Mary wasn’t illiterate; there are letters written in her hand. Another conclusion is likelier, Coe writes: That she was a smart and determined single mother whose rich and famous son perhaps should have taken better care of her in her later years.
Male historians also emphasize that Washington never had children, and how this was integral to his elevation as the “Father of Our Nation.”
Coe shows that although Washington never had biological kids, he loved children and raised many, including stepchildren, step-grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Domestic life was central to his being; he played with these kids, found them the best tutors and even dispensed love advice. When Washington’s stepson Jack Custis died of typhus during key negotiations after the Battle of Yorktown, the great general left for nearly a week to be with his family.
Coe is a trained historian, but she isn’t an academic. She spent her early career in public history exhibitions at the Brooklyn Historical Society and the New York Public Library before focusing on writing. She’s also a consulting producer on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s new George Washington series, which debuts on the History Channel on Sunday.
Coe’s book is peppered with BuzzFeed-like charts and listicles packed with information both humorous and profound. “If history is boring, it’s the historian’s fault,” she said. It has received mostly glowing reviews from readers and other historians, but on Saturday, a Daily Mail story inaccurately claimed Coe called Washington “an illiterate liar who cheated his way to top,” causing a wave of online harassment. Some early reviews have also described the book as “irreverent” — a characterization she takes issue with.
“We’ve expected that presidential biographies should be reverent,” she said. “If someone is reverent toward their subject, they can’t really tell us about them in a truthful manner. They’re biased.”
Nowhere is this clearer than in Coe’s real talk about Washington and slavery. As far as she knows, she is the first biographer to describe Mount Vernon as a “forced-labor camp,” an accurate but controversial term that has moved through academic and activist circles in recent years.
“Every biography has to mention that he owned slaves, of course,” Coe said. “And it is absolutely true to say that he inherited slaves when he was still an adolescent, but it is not true to say that that was the only world that he knew,” or that “he was a man of his times.”
Washington spent time in regions where slavery was taboo or illegal, was pressured by close friends for decades to free the people he enslaved, and complained that he didn’t have the money to pay the required fees to free them, even though he did, Coe found.
There’s much more evidence that Washington’s will, which provided a path to freedom for the people he enslaved, was written out of concern about his legacy than out of a sincere change of heart about slavery, Coe said.
“He was aware that people he admired throughout the world would judge him harshly,” she said.
In one particularly disturbing passage, Coe describes how Washington sent an enslaved man, who had attempted to flee, to be sold in the West Indies, knowing full well that sending him to the harsh region was a virtual death sentence.
Her goal with the book is not to “cancel” Washington, she said, but to provide readers — especially first-time presidential biography readers — with the complete truth, so they can feel confident in drawing their own conclusions.
“I hope that he seems real,” she said. “I need him to be a fully formed person.”
This story has been updated.
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