cover image You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington

Alexis Coe. Viking, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2410-0

In this breezy yet fact-filled revisionist biography, historian and podcast host Coe (Alice + Freda Forever) takes George Washington’s previous—predominantly male—biographers to task for obsessing over his virility, enshrining myths about his military prowess and moral exactitude, and mischaracterizing his relationship with his mother. Coe threads her narrative with charts listing Washington’s “frenemies” (Thomas Jefferson, James Madison) and the diseases he survived (diphtheria, malaria, dysentery). She describes how Washington’s widowed mother kept him out of the British Royal Navy and details his involvement in the 1754 skirmish that sparked the French and Indian War. Eschewing a lengthy recap of Washington’s Revolutionary War battles, Coe focuses on his role as spymaster and propagandist. She recounts his reluctance to serve as president and sketches the era’s partisan divides. While others have praised Washington for freeing his slaves, Coe notes that he actually left it to his widow to sign the deed of manumission, and that she likely did so out of fear for her life. The book’s brisk pace and contrarian perspective leave significant gaps (Washington’s two presidential terms take up less than 40 pages), but it succeeds in humanizing the Founding Father. Readers who like their history with a dose of wry humor will savor this accessible account. (Feb.)