A different view of the first president

January 24, 2022 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, journalism.

Have you ever had the feeling when you were reading about George Washington that you might not of been getting the full story? Is this guy really is good and perfect as American mythology makes him out to be?

George Washington was certainly essential to the founding of the United States. He gets a lot of credit for seeing his Continental Army through the seven years of the Revolutionary War. He also gets a lot of credit, as he should, for stepping away from power when it was offered to him, first as a king (or some sort of monarch) and later as president who refused a third term. Those were precedent-setting actions that have stood as in good stead for more than two centuries.

But there are other parts of Washington’s legacy that may not be so bright and shiny. Historian Alexis Coe has delved into those with her new biography of Washington titled You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington. It is “irreverent.” That’s a term that Coe seems to relish because she believes that far too long for far too long we have been far too “reverent.”

The book is not so much a taking down of Washington as it is a setting of his actions into the context of the times.

For instance, Washington was not a great military commander. He lost more battles than he won.

What he was, and what he recognized himself to be, was a great symbol for the country – someone who could you know unify people and around whom people would forget their differences.

Washington understood the value of intelligence, of what the enemy was doing. Washington knew how to gather intelligence. In the last few years we have learned much about his spy networks through the good work of some excellent historians. Washington also knew how to use that intelligence against the enemy.

Washington, unlike his British counterparts, also understood the value of propaganda. He consistently sought to turn incidents of war into British atrocities that would preclude people from supporting them

What Washington failed at, however, was the day-to-day understanding of politics. Washington stood aloof as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton argued about how the country should be run and was loathe to take a stand. What that fostered, according to Coe, was a partisanship that we are still living with today. When he finally left office, she says, the country was “in a mess.”

I’m not sure that all of that can be laid at Washington feet, although her point is well taken. So is her book, which has received critical praise since it was published last February.

Coe talks about her approach to the first president and some of her research findings in a HistoryHit podcast. She is interviewed by the originator of the HistoryHit.tv website, which has a host of podcasts and documentaries geared toward those of us who can’t get enough of the past.

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