When I’m giving advice to writers who are worried that their subject matter isn’t unique enough, I often remind them that there have been over 900 published biographies of George Washington.
Alexis Coe’s You Never Forget Your First is nothing like those other biographies. If that wasn’t apparent from the fact that its title is a sex joke, it becomes obvious on its very first page, which contains a few quotes about Washington: one from John Marshall, one from Woodrow Wilson, and one from… that infamous animated YouTube video. Yes, this is a legitimate work of genuine historical scholarship that contains the sentence “I heard that motherfucker had like thirty goddamn dicks.”
I wouldn’t quite call this book a takedown of other Washington biographies, but it definitely sets itself up in opposition to them, in tone if not in content. The introduction has a hilarious section examining the many homoerotic phrases Washington’s other biographers (all of them male) use to describe his notoriously muscular thighs. There’s also a great table debunking many of the most common myths about Washington, such as that he wore a wig (that was his real hair, which he painstakingly styled and powdered) and that he had wooden teeth (his replacement teeth actually came from animals… and slaves).
But ultimately, Washington’s status as a mythic figure in the American imagination descends not from any set of specific facts about him, but from the image we all have of the overall arc of his life. For most people who were paying attention in middle-school history class, it goes something like this: born to a family of wealthy Virginia landowners, leads the Continental Army to victory during the War of Independence, presides over the Constitutional Convention, unanimously elected as our first President. Establishes the principle of a two-term Presidency through his groundbreaking decision not to run for a third term, and dies a universally beloved hero.
As simplified narratives of American history go, this story of Washington’s life is far from the least accurate. The popular image of Washington is certainly more accurate than that of Jefferson, whose brutal legacy of slave ownership makes him the most hypocritical Founding Father, and whose vision of the United States as a permanently agrarian society ended up almost completely detached from the way the country actually turned out. I’d argue it’s even more accurate than the way we learn about the civil rights movement, which is of course much more recent.
Still, there are a few key elements of Washington’s legacy that get watered down in this condensed story. The most important is the idea that his decision not to run for a third term was driven primarily by a principled desire to set the precedent of voluntarily relinquishing power. It’s true that Washington was known as a principled figure, and it’s also true that, unusual for a national leader at the time, he had no apparent hunger for political power. However, the main reason he stepped down after two terms was that he fucking hated being President.
He had agreed to serve in the first place only at the unanimous insistence of the other Founding Fathers. (I’m reminded of Gore Vidal’s quip that “Any American who is prepared to run for president should automatically, by definition, be disqualified from ever doing so.”) And he had attempted to step down after his first term, only to be talked into remaining in office by Jefferson and Hamilton, among others. As Coe puts it, “he did not so much agree as capitulate to a second term.”
And it was in the second term when things started to go south. The popular image of Washington as a figure of universal respect and acclaim actually was true—right up through the end of his first term. By the end of his second, he had succumbed to the same partisan fighting that had begun to tear the country apart only moments after its founding.
Essentially, the founders were against political parties—in theory—and designed a system of government under the assumption that such parties wouldn’t exist. Yet before the ink on the Constitution was dry, the same people who had designed this supposedly party-less system pretty much all immediately formed or joined parties. Two predominated: the Federalists (strong central government, pro-business, Great Britain over France) and the Democratic-Republicans (weak central government, pro-farmer, France over Great Britain).
Washington remained nominally non-partisan, but he was clearly more sympathetic to the Federalists—a losing position, as not counting Washington, the Federalists only controlled the country for the four years of John Adams’ Presidency, and the party collapsed completely by the 1820s. (Note: although the Federalists had limited success as an actual political party, their vision for the country totally won out in the long term. Suck it, Democratic-Republicans!)
Washington began his time in office as a figure of universal admiration. But by the end of his second term, he was a “popular” President only in the contemporary sense: beloved by his own party and a middle swath of what we would now call “independents,” but hated by the rest. He ended his life estranged from many of his former friends and fellow Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, Madison, James Monroe, and John Randolph. And that graceful and diplomatic farewell address you remember from the history books? It’s only that graceful and diplomatic because Hamilton made substantial edits to Washington’s first draft to make it less bitter and angry.
By the time Washington’s 64th birthday came in 1796—an event that was once celebrated with throngs in the streets—members of the Democratic-Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted against adjourning for thirty minutes to wish him well.
So what can we learn from Washington’s life and from You Never Forget Your First? I see a few key takeaways:
Political parties are inevitable, and you shouldn’t design a system of government that assumes their absence but has no actual enforcement mechanisms to prevent them from arising.
Quit while you’re ahead. Washington could have left office to universal acclaim after his first term, but instead he (begrudgingly) pushed his luck with a second and saw his reputation shatter.
The only thing worse than being universally loved and admired is not being universally loved and admired. Washington saw the way he was venerated after the war as primarily a burden. All he wanted to do was retire in peace, yet he was continually pushed to hold political office, deluged with letters and visitors, and lost much of his privacy. But—shocker!—when that veneration became a lot less universal, he resented its loss. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.
Historical biographies should have more dick jokes.
Yours in wondering if you guys want more book reviews,
P.S. One last Washington myth TOTALLY DESTROYED: you may have heard the fact, championed by Washington’s admirers, that he was the only Founding Father to posthumously free his slaves. This is technically true, but only because some founders (like Ben Franklin) freed theirs during their lifetimes, while others (like Hamilton) never owned any in the first place. Also, most of the slaves on the Washington estate belonged to his wife’s family, and none of them got freed.
Washington fact check:
Twelve stories high — TRUE
Made of radiation — TRUE
Anti-slavery — FALSE