January 01, 2021

Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This article was originally published April 24, 2020.

He’s on our money, our capital is named after him and he’s even in our extremely weird car ads. But how much do you really know about statesman, general, farmer, slave master, husband, stepfather, and first President of the United States George Washington? According to Alexis Coe, author of You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington, probably not as much as you might think. Coe walks us through the surprising life of the man on the one dollar bill.

Three Takeaways:

  • First off, Washington didn’t actually want to be president. And he wasn’t feigning humility - he genuinely didn’t want the position. After leading American troops during the Revolutionary War, Coe says that the former general was content to lead the life of a gentleman farmer and slavemaster. However, the other founders realized that only Washington was popular and respected enough to fill the office of the presidency and cajoled him into taking the job. 
  • If you think that divisive partisanship is a new phenomenon, it’s been around since the very first presidency. Though Washington himself remained mostly above the fray, at least in his first term, the infighting among the “founding fathers” was bitter, messy, and deeply rancorous. Coe points out that “Hamilton, Jefferson, all these groups who believed in a strong central government or not, they ended up funding and writing anonymous essays for partisan newspapers.”
  • Coe believes that Washington’s biographers are too reverent of the man, and fall into similar pitfalls. Since most of his biographers are older white men (Coe is one of the very few women to write a biography of Washington), they’re less likely to explore how he was brought up by a single mother. And Coe thinks they’re too worried about protecting him. For example, historians often point out that Washington freed slaves in his will. That has a grain of truth to it, but he only specifically freed one of his slaves, while Martha Washington was allowed to determine the fate of the others. And he waited until he died to make those decisions. Other founders, like Ben Franklin, didn’t wait until drawing up their will to free their slaves.  

More Reading:

  • If you can’t get enough of Alexis Coe talking about presidential history, check out her podcast “Presidents Are People Too!,” which dives into the strange lives of America’s presidents.
  • Once vacations are possible again, why not take a trip to Mount Vernon, an absolutely fascinating museum dedicated to the life and career of George Washington. It’s well worth a visit
  • If you’d like to read more about how reluctant Washington was to be president, here’s a great article in Smithsonian Magazine.

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