Book Review cover

Absolutely, yes, you’ll vote this year.

Maybe your mind’s not fully made up, maybe it is; either way, you’ll cast your ballot if they have to carry you in on a stretcher to do it. Taking part in the process is a right you’re proud to have, so you never miss an election but no matter how many you participate in, says Alexis Coe, “You Never Forget Your First.”

Some time after she began writing this book, Coe noticed one thing: all the biographies about George Washington were “authored by men.” Everything most of us know about our first President came from a man’s perspective and much of it, she says, was outright fib, half-truth, or not-quite-told.

Take, for example, Washington’s teeth: they weren’t wooden because wood degrades when wet. The reality was that some of his chompers came from ivory and others came from the mouths of slaves he inherited from his father when George was just eleven years old.

Young Washington was also willed a sizable farm then, but he wanted to be a soldier instead. History shows that he got his wish but it wasn’t without issues: at fourteen, he hoped to join the British Royal Navy, but his mother wouldn’t allow it. Later, when his elder half-brother died of smallpox in Bermuda, Washington seized his chance and “wasted neither time nor opportunity, immediately setting his sights on Lawrence’s now vacant position in the Virginia militia.” In war, Coe says, Washington “was well aware of his own limitations” and while he didn’t always win the battles he engaged in, he was quite beloved by troops and by average citizens. At wars’ end, in fact, he’d become “America’s first real celebrity,” but reluctantly so; the war had aged him, he was exhausted and ready to retire. Martha, his wife, was ready to have him home.

But then came the request to attend a meeting in Philadelphia, and a near-unanimous vote for a new American president…

At first look, “You Never Forget Your First” doesn’t seem to add a whole lot to the other volumes author Alexis Coe mentions in her early pages. Look again, though, and you’ll find a newer, updated George here – one that’s seen through modern eyes.

For one, Coe examines Washington-as-slave-owner more than most. That that information lacks heroism should come as no surprise, in fact, it’s pretty outrageous but there’s a good twist to the story of how slavery ended at Mount Vernon and that matches nicely with the second well-done aspect here: more so than with those other books, Coe tells Washington’s story partially through peripheral tales of the women and slaves in his life. This gives readers a sense of the man rather than the statesman, making our “first” more flawed-human than unapproachable deity.

This book is a no-brainer for a historian but anyone who fell asleep in high school classes will also like it for its fresh take on the subject. Snag a look at “You Never Forget Your First,” and you’ll give it the nod.

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