You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington
Viking, 2020, 301 pp., $27
Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle
Scribner, 2020, 330 pp., $30
“It is far easier to take George Washington apart than to put him together” notes Mary Wells Ashworth in George Washington: First in Peace, the final volume of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Washington’s life completed in 1957. Douglas Southall Freeman, the series’ primary author, died suddenly of a heart attack while penning the conclusion to Washington’s first term in office, which left research assistants Ashworth and John Alexander Carroll the task of completing his magnum opus. Although she was quoting Freeman, Ashworth was speaking from experience.
Ashworth’s warning has not deterred the legions of journalists and historians who have attempted to disassemble and reassemble America’s preeminent Founding Father over the past half century. The arrival of a biography promising to shed new light on Washington every February has practically become civic ritual, even as the majority cannot help but retread lengths of the path originally laid by Ashworth, Carroll, and Freeman. Perhaps this phenomenon has something to do with Noemi Emery’s supposition that “the unacknowledged void between the needed fire of the soldier-president and the dim oddity we have been handed does something upsetting to our lives.” Washington’s perceived reticence is a vacuum continually drawing those who seek either a model to emulate or a figure to blame in troubled times.
Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, published this year, is one of the latest additions to the genre. A historian by training, Coe brings a pop culture sensibility to her research that would make Sofia Coppola smile (her previous monograph, Alice + Freda Forever, explored the sensational trial of a woman who murdered her female lover at the turn of the century). Despite the suggestive title and cover art (a modern painting of Washington smirks at us as he jauntily adjusts his jacket), Coe’s work purports to be the first “adult” single-volume biography of Washington written by a woman since Emery’s 1976 Washington: A Biography. Coe argues that books on the nation’s first President have been overwhelmingly produced by “The Thigh Men of Dad History”: male writers who follow “rote” narrative protocols and spill an inordinate amount of ink in their thousand-page tomes obsessing over Washington’s character and masculinity. Her “addition to a crowded bookshelf” is an attempt to unravel the male-dominated discourse that has reconstituted Washington from “a man” to “the embodiment of the nation at its best, most noble and public-spirited.”
If Coe is annoyed that scholars such as Ron Chernow and Joseph Ellis hyper-fixate on Washington’s musculature, she definitely has a bone to pick with Abigail Adams. Upon meeting Washington in the summer of 1775, Abigail humorously chided her husband for failing to prepare her for the encounter. “I thought the one half was not told me,” she breathed to John before quoting a poem by John Dryden. “Mark his Majestick fabric! he’s a temple/ Sacred by birth, and built by hands divine.”
Washington’s physical attributes were as much a source of fascination in the 18th century as they are today, and the observations in surviving accounts have driven the pages expended on this subject in modern biographies—not the other way around. Regardless, Coe mocks the Thigh Men as a “‘size matters’ crowd,” failing to appreciate the thousands of primary and secondary sources that historians must grapple with as they build an understanding of Washington and his world. It’s just one of many anti-intellectual moments in a work that seesaws between serious engagement with Washington historiography and interludes on Washington’s “likes,” “dislikes,” “frenemies,” and “pettiest acts” (to name a few) that interrupt her story like a pop-up from a bizarre online dating profile.
Even Coe herself cannot help but hit the same beats as her forebears, as she trudges through Washington’s beginning as a teenage officer in the Seven Years’ War, marriage to Martha, growing animosity toward colonial rule, rise as commander in chief of the Continental Army, succeeding terms as President of the United States, retirement, and death. Nevertheless, she generates flashes of brilliance when incorporating new interventions on some of the most understudied individuals in Washington’s world.
Mary Ball Washington, Washington’s mother, has been unduly maligned as an uneducated and unfeeling nag who only burdened her eldest son. Marshaling research by specialists on gender in the 18th century—such as historian Martha Saxton, who has since produced a magnificent new biography on Mary—Coe successfully recasts the Washington matriarch as a shrewd and resourceful businesswoman who instilled the principle of hard work in her children while “push[ing] the boundaries of wifehood in early America.” Coe similarly weaves in recent studies on Washington’s slaves to powerfully emphasize the moral cost of his complicity in perpetuating human bondage, such as Ona Judge, a seamstress who successfully escaped Washington’s control at the end of his presidency.
While adding needed complexity to Washington’s story, Coe’s quest to rebuke everything the Thigh Men stand for ultimately leads her to stumble analytically. She correctly notes that the Townshend and Intolerable Acts “radicalized” Washington and his fellow colonists into supporting separation from Great Britain but forgoes a study of Washington’s evolving politics in favor of revisionist history propagated by the New York Times’ 1619 Project. Coe posits that Somerset v. Stewart, a 1772 British legal decision establishing that chattel slavery was unsupported by common law, “terrified” Southern colonists and galvanized them to rebellion—an interpretation that has since been contested by numerous historians of early America, notably Sean Wilentz. Nowhere does she examine countervailing evidence, such as Washington’s involvement in passing the Fairfax Resolves of 1774, which included among its demands for the restoration of colonial rights “our most earnest wishes to see an entire stop for ever put to such a wicked, cruel, and unnatural Trade [in slaves].”
If Coe provides only a superficial account of Washington’s revolutionary turn, she completely fails to grasp his most important contribution to the fight for independence. To counteract modern perception of Washington as “an unparalleled military leader,” Coe describes the Revolutionary War primarily through Washington’s “diplomatic, propaganda, and espionage campaigns.” While this presents an entertaining opportunity to highlight Washington’s spy ring, it precludes a discussion of Washington’s critical role in uniting a heterogenous army, poor in resources and experience, against one of the most powerful fighting forces in the world. Other generals were certainly better strategists, but as Chernow puts it, they could never rival Washington’s “genius for exalting the mission of his army and enabling [them] to see themselves, not as lowly grunts, but as actors on the stage of history.”
Unfortunately, Coe is fundamentally uninterested in acknowledging any of Washington’s virtues. This becomes especially clear when examining Washington’s decision to emancipate his slaves at the end of his life. Coe treats Washington’s careful revision of his will in 1797 as a last-ditch publicity stunt, an attempt to restore a reputation that had suffered after eight years of wrangling hardening political divisions in his cabinet and across the country. This cynical characterization once again betrays an unwillingness to trace Washington’s evolution over time. Coe sees no distinction between the Washington that (she rightly notes) once callously sold a slave to the Caribbean for rum and molasses in 1766 and the one who decades later amassed tracts on antislavery thought and schemed in vain to end his involvement in the practice. But Coe cuts Washington no slack, criticizing him for not giving up “everything” to free his slaves during his lifetime. Instead of addressing scholarship on the intransigence of the slave system in Washington’s society, she picks fights with random authors at The Federalist. Even Mary V. Thompson, an historian whose groundbreaking work on slavery at Mount Vernon Coe extols, argues that the institution was so “entrenched . . . as a social and economic system in Virginia by the eighteenth century . . . that trying to get out of slave-owning was pretty much impossible for most of George Washington’s life.”
Coe spends so much time deconstructing Washington that it’s hard to get a sense of what she’s putting back together. If there’s a coherent portrait, it’s not unlike the book’s smarmy jacket: Washington the ambitious, self-serving, and emotionally unavailable patriarch; a man who fails upward and values reputation above all else. In her quest to fight “male” myth-making, Coe has engendered some myths of her own.
Coe’s vision fits comfortably within a cultural narrative that wishes to knock down the idols we have made of our founding generation. Even if the impulse has some merit, the rubble is about as true or useful as outright hagiography. Instead, a reconstruction of Washington that may better meet the needs of our fractured and rudderless age is Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle, the latest offering from former White House speechwriter Jonathan Horn.
Washington’s End begins not long after the point when Ashworth and her colleague took up Freeman’s mantle in George Washington: First in Peace, opening at Adams’s inauguration. Using meticulous research, Horn demonstrates how “peace” eluded Washington throughout his retirement, which was repeatedly interrupted by partisan attacks, tensions with political allies, and the specter of war with France. Underlying these challenges was Washington’s quiet campaign to navigate his new role as a “private citizen,” a position upon which the legitimacy of America’s democratic system fundamentally depended.
Although Horn centers his story on Washington’s final three years, he finds unique ways to exceed the boundaries of this narrow frame. He bounces backwards and forwards across Washington’s lifetime while using thematic anchors to gradually inch his way from the end of Washington’s presidency in March 1797 to his death in December 1799. While this allows Horn to cover considerable ground, it may prove confusing to readers who are not already familiar with Washington’s chronology.
More interestingly, Horn eschews Freeman’s preference for the third person limited (or as he put it, the “fog of war”), presenting Washington’s life largely from the perspective of his contemporaries. The competing interests of the diverse men and women that formed his society complicate Washington more effectively than our modern judgment. Rapidly he shifts from Elizabeth Willing Powel’s cherished confidante to James Monroe’s hated nemesis; from a hero John Adams could never rival to a master the enslaved Hercules eventually outwitted. The eyes of the people who knew him throw his virtues and imperfections into sharp relief.
As Horn lays out over the course of his work, Washington’s dedication to balancing competing interests dominated his retirement almost with the same intensity that it defined his generalship and his presidency. Even “under his vine and fig tree,” he could never feel truly free to act on his impulses, lest he somehow disrupt the peaceful transition of power that had signaled constitutional democracy’s triumph in 1797. The pros and cons of every personal decision therefore had to be carefully measured. Should he publicly respond to defamatory letters and pamphlets circulated by Thomas Jefferson and his Republican allies, or would that only heighten the partisan passions engulfing the nation? Would it be appropriate for him to shelter the son of the Marquis de Lafayette, a dear friend who gave everything to the United States, while France seized American ships and meddled in national politics? Should he accept Alexander Hamilton’s urging to resume command of a standing American army, and if he did, how would he share power with President Adams without being accused of autocratic designs?
While Washington did his best to live up to his reputation as the American Cincinnatus, he nevertheless was active in transforming the seat of American power. Horn treats the City of Washington itself as a deuteragonist, following its evolution from a wooded plot of muddy terrain along the Potomac to the site of the nation’s capital. Washington guided the development of his namesake at many junctures. He used his experience as a surveyor to plot the city’s boundaries and approve the general layout, selected the design of the future United States Capitol building, invested in the land, and encouraged others to do so as well. As much as Washington hoped to profit from his involvement, his attempt to establish a national university in the city that would bring together students “from all parts of the United States” to receive a republican education uncorrupted by “state prejudices” underscored his larger aspirations. More than anything, Washington wanted the capital to serve as an institution that would strengthen the Union by training succeeding generations to view the United States as he did: “one great whole.”
Like its protagonist, Washington’s End is not a perfect book. Horn’s florid prose, designed to engage a wide readership, occasionally verges on the melodramatic. He relies on traditional interpretations of characters like Mary Ball Washington and fails to give the slaves forced to labor at Mount Vernon attention that matches their inextricable presence in Washington’s life. Unlike Coe, who clearly articulates her position on Washington, Horn’s thesis is also more difficult to discern. It only reveals itself in full in his conclusion, when Washington the President coalesces with Washington the capital: “[Future citizens] will marvel at its influence and decry the influences under which it has fallen; complain that it moves too slowly and shudder at the speed of its wrath; plead for it to do more and wish it would go away; view it as worthy of its memorials and see it as a betrayal of a revolutionary past. . . . In every succeeding generation, they will talk as if they are living in the last days of Washington.”
The version of Washington that we need today is the same Washington we have needed since June 1775. It is the man who did his best to cultivate self-mastery in disposition and prudence in decision-making; who signed the final version of his will not as a Virginian but as “a citizen of the United States.” Preserving the institutions that the Revolution created was his constant preoccupation, because he believed in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and trusted that they were best served by the political structure enshrined in the Constitution, however frustrating and turgid it appeared to outsiders. Washington valued systems, and argued that, even if they contained flaws, they would do more in the long run to secure “the happiness of my fellow-citizens” than mere democratic anarchism. “The Constitution is the guide which I never can abandon,” he asserted in 1795, and he allowed it to shape the execution of his public and private duties throughout his lifetime.
This may not be a satisfactory attitude when the systems that surround us appear to be so riddled with inefficiency and injustice that the temptation to burn everything down seems almost justifiable. Nevertheless, we would be wise to follow Washington’s inclination to work through rather than around them, leaning into whatever roles we occupy to best advance the happiness of our fellow citizens. And if we must rebuild Washington, it should not be Washington the saint, nor Washington the scoundrel. It should be as he has always been: Washington the institutionalist.