Alexis Coe begins her biography of George Washington by stating that she had looked over her shelf of previously published biographies of Washington and noted they were all written by men. And as soon as she pointed that out I was even more determined to read what she had to say because gaining a woman’s perspective on one of the greatest Americans would be of particular interest to me. This is one of the reasons I try to read widely – gaining new perspectives on what some might consider tried-and-true or even dry topics. I gained a lot of insight into not only Washington’s life but also in how we have traditionally viewed the Founders and how we can adjust that lens to not only learn more about them but also make them more relatable and real to more Americans.
This is the first Washington biography I’ve read since I was in grade school, and that one included the apocryphal anecdote about the cherry tree. I have not read many of what one might refer to as the “dad” biographies about the Founders. (At least in my family, my dad got one of these every Christmas for awhile and he would read them and they would be on his shelf looking all imposing.) I did read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton and David McCullough’s John Adams, and those were both a direct result of being obsessed with Hamilton the Musical. (Lin-Manuel Miranda is a godsend, let me tell you!) I lived in Northern Virginia growing up, visiting Jamestown and Williamsburg and D.C., and have a basic understanding of the Revolutionary War and early American politics. One thing this biography did was put things in a context I could easily grasp without weighing me down with more information than I’m able to process. I know I can find other sources for those deep dives about certain battles, but I’m reading this book to learn about Washington the man!
It reminded me of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell, which I listened to on audiobook, and therefore had the pleasure of hearing Nick Offerman be George Washington shouting, “Are these the men with which I am to defend America?” Lafayette in the Somewhat United States was also written by a woman, and perhaps having that irreverent outlook, and featuring colorful anecdotes about many of the Founders, contributed to my enjoyment. Like how *seeing* Shakespeare is a better experience than merely *reading* Shakespeare, having actors in my head who have played Washington and the other characters in history helped me to grasp the scenarios and feel the humanity. So yeah, Chris Jackson was singing in my head in parts of this book, Nick Offerman appeared in others, and even Jason O’Mara from Sons of Liberty helped me along. (Side note: Sons of Liberty was way not accurate as a miniseries, but at least was entertaining.)
This Smithsonian interview with Coe helped to pique my interest in reading the book, in particular this quote, on how many prior biographies talk about Washington:
And the way that they would describe them, “He gripped the saddle with his thunderous thighs.” It was a little inappropriate, sometimes read like a romance novel. And I couldn’t really figure out why. Did they just really love his thighs? Were there a lack of great thighs in early America?
Coe frequently mentions “the thigh men” in her narrative, referring to past biographers and historians who tend to have a reverential or even worshipful view of the Founding Fathers (not necessarily the Founding Mothers) to the point where these men are more übermensch than real people with real foibles and characteristics that we all face. She talked about Washington as a man who had magnetic charisma and was a devoted father figure, a man with a seemingly complicated relationship with his mother, and one who suffered from both financial and fraternal losses. She goes at length to describe Washington’s thoughts on slavery, on the slaves who were closest to him, and how their families were torn apart for business reasons. This latter point is one that is dived into more and more with our Founders, clouding our image of them as saintly men.
One story that particularly drew me in was how, during the Revolutionary War, Washington learned of many accounts of rape on American women by British soldiers, and went against the usual convention at the time by encouraging these accounts to be reported and publicized.
Washington let it be known that he wanted horrific stories “on the subject of the Enemy’s brutality” collected and sent to him. […] Accounts about the “infamous mercenary ravagers” were then pieced together and printed in congressional reports, placed with no less care or intention than troops on the battlefield.
As someone who has sought out more women’s stories during early American conflicts, learning that the general, in his way, heard women and sought to fight the injustice is something of a comfort. It may have been to further ostracize the British soldiers, but it still gave victimized women some amount of justice in a society that wouldn’t necessarily provide that.
So if you’re interested in learning more about one of the most important first Americans, and don’t want to spend months reading a “thigh man” biography where you lose track of where you are in the person’s life, I highly recommend Alexis Coe’s entertaining and enjoyable read on good ole George.