What the History Books Won’t Tell You About George Washington

What the History Books Won’t Tell You About George Washington

What the History Books Won’t Tell You About George Washington

What the History Books Won’t Tell You About George Washington

A Biography of George Washington
By Alexis Coe
Read by Brittany Pressley

Given that we are now a nation of armchair epidemiologists, it felt eerily relevant to learn that George Washington survived the following diseases, among others: smallpox, malaria (six times), diphtheria, tuberculosis (twice), dysentery and tuberculosis at the same time (four times), and pneumonia.

We generally take it for granted that Washington was an impressive man, but to triumph over this many illnesses at a time when cures ranged from draining your blood to draining your blood again seems near superhuman. Even more so when the ailments are presented in list form with symptoms (including words like “excruciating,” “bloody,” “pustules”) and treatments (sometimes just “prayer”), as they are in “You Never Forget Your First,” Alexis Coe’s new biography of the man and president we only thought we knew.

As this historian illustrates, most of what we do know is either untrue — no child would chop down a cherry tree in order to make mischief; wood would be an exceptionally bad material for dentures — or less interesting than what the existing history books have overlooked.

The table of diseases (hard to follow in the narrator Brittany Pressley’s audiobook version, in which the jolting transitions between narrative and sidebar detract from the experience) isn’t there just for fun; it is a stealth fighter in Coe’s battle against the existing canon of Washington biographies. The physical obstacles the man has overcome, she argues, are better evidence of his strength and resilience than the details that other popular biographers have focused on: namely, his thighs. She nicknames these historians, Ron Chernow first among them, the “Thigh Men of Dad History,” i.e. men (and they are all men) who write history about men for men. To her, their reflexive focus on Washington’s stereotypical masculinity means that they neglect other things that are more important: his shortcomings and contradictions, the textures of 18th-century life. The nickname makes me cringe, but it’s effective.

It also hints at Coe’s larger project, which is an important achievement. She has cleverly disguised a historiographical intervention in the form of a sometimes cheeky presidential biography. In swiftly departing from the “Thigh Men,” she demonstrates that just because more conventional presidential biographies sometimes approach the length of the Bible (Chernow’s “Washington” is 900 pages), that doesn’t mean they are an infallible or unfiltered record of events. History, this book argues, is always an interpretation of the past and an argument about what it means.

In an introduction that she narrates herself, Coe tells us that a few years into her research she discovered that no female historian had written an adult biography of Washington in more than 40 years — and it showed. Recent biographers have characterized the president’s mother, Mary Washington, as a harsh and meddlesome woman, despite no contemporary evidence for that. But the lack of corroboration didn’t matter to these authors: “Everyone knows,” Coe says, “that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, a woman is probably a shrew.” She then provides a devastating “sampling of Ron Chernow’s descriptions of Mary Washington,” which include: “self-centered,” “querulous,” “crude,” “coarse,” “hypocritical,” “slovenly,” “strangely indifferent,” “crusty” and “complainer.”

The Thigh Men, she says, “would have done well to review scholarship on early American motherhood with the same amount of interest they had for military history.” Such scholarship is available thanks largely to the increased admission of women and people of color into the academy around the 1960s; entire disciplines now focus on the historical contributions of women, slaves, Indigenous peoples, immigrants and other marginalized groups, and, in so doing, change how we tell the story of America.

This book exists within that tradition, arguing that there is room for people other than the Thigh Men to write biographies of George Washington and any other part of American history, just as there is room for writers besides women and people of color to focus on the histories of marginalized groups.

Coe emphasizes the truth that our first president was a slaveholder from the age of 11 until he died, which might not sit well with readers who prefer to see their founders as unblemished marble statues. She regularly mentions the slaves he owned and kept around him; how he treated them (paying below market value for their teeth to use as his dentures); as well as his ambivalent participation in the institution over all. Understanding Washington this way should not be considered a choice: Slavery, among other atrocities, was politics, and he was a politician.

That’s not to say Coe’s biography has no gaps — readers keen to hear about Washington’s military heroics, for instance, will be disappointed. I was relieved to be spared play-by-plays of Revolutionary War battles, and much preferred to hear about Washington the spymaster and propagandist. But the particulars of war deserve more careful consideration than Coe gives them: I had to listen to her description of how Washington allegedly started the French and Indian War several times, and I’m still confused.

Also puzzling is the lack of detail surrounding Washington’s time as a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the First Continental Congress. If he didn’t leave a lot of writing behind about it, that would have been good to know. As it is, the impression is that he had no thoughts at all about politics until he became president.

Unfortunately, Pressley’s stentorian affect detracts from the authenticity of the dialogue between Washington and his contemporaries, undermining Coe’s argument that the founders were people too, just like us. They weren’t gods, and their lives were not the stuff of myth and legend — even if one of them did survive malaria six times in the 1700s.

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