He is singular among American heroes: Founding Father, truth-teller, brave but reluctant military leader. In the insightful and entertaining You Never Forget Your First, historian Alexis Coe moves past the well-worn tropes we’ve come to associate with George Washington. Her nuanced portrait paints a man torn between service to country and family.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Alexis Coe.
Born to Augustine and Mary Washington on a modest farm in Fredericksburg, Virginia, George was the oldest of six. Augustine died when George was just 11 years old. With a modest inheritance and no money for education, George learned responsibility at an early age. At 17, he became the surveyor of Culpeper County, the youngest ever, and began buying land. A natural leader, he became a major in the Virginia military by 21 and caught the eye of British Governor Dinwiddie, who sent him on a mission to expel French settlers from the Ohio territory. These were his earliest forays into what would become a lifetime of public service.
Washington’s story is as well documented as anyone’s in American history. Yet Coe, a former research curator for the New York Public Library, finds fresh angles from which to examine him. And she doesn’t shy away from the most troubling aspect of Washington’s legacy: When he died, he owned 123 slaves. The museum at Mount Vernon claims Washington freed all the people he enslaved in his 1799 will. While that is technically true, Coe points out that their emancipation was not automatic upon his death. Even worse, many of the people enslaved by Washington had married those enslaved by Martha, so even when they were emancipated, their loved ones were not.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Coe writes with style and humor (one chapter opens with the line “Great love stories don’t often begin with dysentery”). You Never Forget Your First reminds us of the importance of public service and diplomacy, and Coe makes colonial history not just fascinating but relevant.