George Washington: The Man, the Myth, the Slave Owner

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In Jezebel’s newest series Rummaging Through the Attic, we interview nonfiction authors whose books explore fascinating moments, characters, and stories in history. For this episode we spoke with Alexis Coe, author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, a biography that examines the life of the first U.S. president beyond his never having told a lie, wearing wooden teeth, and being one of the founding fathers.

Historian and author Alexis Coe is fed up with the “thigh men of dad history.” That would be the men writing biographies of George Washington that end up in the Father’s Day section of bookstores, who venerate every aspect of the man, including his thighs. “What they end up doing is sort of reproducing this person who they conflate with a role model, someone we should revere,” she says. “And I don’t believe that.” To Coe, who is the first woman historian in almost a century to write a biography on the nation’s first president, the purpose of a biographer is to present the reader with all of the facts of Washington’s life—not just the ones concerning the war or his presidency. “That should definitely be there, but it should be there alongside a narrative about the enslaved community,” notes Coe. “There’s a whole world he was living in, and it didn’t just have to do with us and what we benefited from. We need to know who he was, even the bad parts.”

Referencing the common myths children often learn in school about Washington, like his not being able to tell a lie and wearing wooden teeth, Coe says, “We’re not taught to think critically about Washington.” For Coe, to know Washington is to understand him as a father, a general, and a slave owner in particular. “He wasn’t perfect. No one is. But his life and his opinions were no more valid than the men and women and children he enslaved,” she points out, adding that although Washington fought for America’s independence, he did not see the hypocrisy when he made sure not to influence emancipation, or when he oversaw genocide against indigenous communities. “We have to understand that that was a part of our founding story, and we have to keep that just as close as all the other things that made the country. And then we have to reconcile them. And he was all those things.”

One key step is to take a closer look at who is influencing the popular narrative on George Washington—in this case, white men. “A lot of the miscommunication around the founders comes from politicians and people who like to whitewash history,” she explains. “I’m perhaps most proud of the beginning and the end [of the book] in which I basically stage an intervention. I say, ‘Look, Washington history has been dominated by white men. I’m the only woman. Here’s what they’ve done. Here’s how it really went off the rails. Here’s where we need to go. And in order to get there, we need to include more work by not only women, but women of color.’”

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