The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Washington biography that skips his manliness and reveals the man

George Washington’s dentures (shown here in an exhibit in 2000) were made not from wood, as schoolchildren have long been taught, but from ivory and the teeth of cattle, horses and Washington’s own slaves. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
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George Washington always smiled with his mouth closed. His bad teeth deeply embarrassed him. His ill-fitting dentures, he complained, “for[ced] the lip out just under the nose,” Alexis Coe tells us in “You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.” The prosthetic devices were fashioned out of his own dead teeth (which he carefully kept), bits of ivory, and teeth from cows, horses and his slaves. Washington paid his enslaved workers for their teeth — well below market value.

Washington’s teeth, with which Coe opens her book, hold a special fascination for America’s children, but they are generally deemed too trivial by his male biographers, who have focused more on his masculine thighs than his dental ensemble. These “Thigh Men of Dad History,” as Coe playfully anoints them, have obsessed over Washington’s manliness: his imposing physique, his impressive self-control, his imperviousness to microbes and bullets. Were they, she slyly suggests, compensating for the one aspect of manhood that Washington conspicuously lacked? “The father of this country was no father,” she points out, though, as she chronicles, he unselfishly parented many children.

While there is little evidence that Washington suffered greatly from his lack of biological offspring, it made his male biographers defensive. Eager to explain what might seem to detract from his legendary masculinity, they considered, and dismissed, venereal disease, anatomical deficit (his hands were massive, one stressed), performance anxiety and erectile dysfunction as reasons for his sterility. Some even suggested his wife, Martha, as the cause of the couple’s childlessness (even though she birthed four children with her first husband), just as they blamed Washington’s mother, Mary, for her son’s character deficits.

Dissatisfied with these one-sided and larger-than-life portraits of Washington, Coe set out to write a more balanced biography, becoming, by her own account, the first woman in 40 years (or an astounding 100 years if you restrict yourself to credentialed female historians) to tackle Washington’s life story. The result is a brisk and uncommonly brief biography of Washington that showcases both heroics and shortcomings, in the first president and in those who surrounded him, in public and in private.

Historians familiar with Washington’s life will find few surprises, but for the uninitiated, there is much to savor and enjoy. Washington comes across as a man amply possessed of charisma and gravitas, strict with himself and others (including his enslaved workers), a hard worker with an outsize sense of duty. He famously controlled his temper, especially in public, but when he lost it, especially at home with his slaves and servants, he turned into a tyrant. He could be petty and, contrary to myth, told the occasional lie.

There is much to admire. The man who could be held responsible for the start of the Seven Years’ War in North America became the architect of the Americans’ unlikely victory in the War of Independence. Washington’s skills as a diplomat, spymaster and public relations whiz, Coe suggests, were easily as important as his military talents in defeating the British. After eight long years at war, Washington handed back power to the civil government (unlike, say, Napoleon, who declared himself emperor) and retired to his beloved Mount Vernon, his plantation in Northern Virginia. In 1789, Washington once more exchanged farming for public service by becoming the first occupant of the presidency, defining the office with his poise and solemnity and shaping enduring governmental practices. After serving two terms he resisted the many calls for a third, setting a precedent that lasted until Franklin Roosevelt.

But Coe does not shy away from the warts. As she points out, Washington feared “unbridled partisanship” as the surest route to dysfunctional government, yet “his greatest failure was that he became increasingly partisan.” His threat to put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794 with military might was a “extraordinary showing of executive overreach.” His treatment of Native Americans was downright brutal. And while he came to oppose slavery, he chose not to extract himself, or his beloved nation, from it in his lifetime. Worried about finances and keeping enslaved families together, Washington freed only one man outright in his will. The remaining 123 people he owned he would have emancipated only upon the death of Martha, who freed them within a year, lest they kill her.

If Coe is playful with her text, she also experiments with format. The book contains numerous charts that run from the whimsical to the weighty. There are lists of Washington’s animals (ranging from bees to sheep) and his “frenemies” (Adams, Jefferson, Paine, Madison and Monroe), but also sage advice to his stepdaughter, the many diseases he survived and how they were treated, his 16 military battles and their outcomes, and a hilarious list of Washington’s acerbic annotations on a critical paper written by James Monroe, his erstwhile ambassador to France. Short sidebars showcase asides or snippets of letters that reveal additional insight into Washington’s world and character.

Compressing Washington’s life into just 200 pages of text necessitates leaving out context. For those who find their appetite whetted by this delicious bite and want to know more about Washington as a slave owner, a son or a “Devourer of Villages,” as a Native American leader called him, recent books dish up larger helpings: “ ‘The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret’: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon” by Mary V. Thompson, “The Widow Washington: The Life of Mary Washington” by Martha Saxton and “The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation” by Colin G. Calloway.

A Biography of George Washington

By Alexis Coe

261 pp. $27