Skip Navigation

George Washington: You Never Forget Your First

How did George Washington view the presidency? What might he think of politics today? Historian Alexis Coe examines America’s first president in a freshly humanizing light in her new book You Never Forget Your First. She talks with Julian Zelizer in this new episode of Brennan Center Live.

  • Alexis Coe
  • Julian Zelizer
June 11, 2020
Alexis Coe

View all our podcast episodes here.


Michael Waldman: George Washington once loomed large. Students memorized his farewell address and learned the facts of his life. Even now, as he’s receded quite a bit, it’s easy to take him for granted. Think about it: How many times in history has the victorious general in a revolution, elected unanimously, walked away from power — twice? And what about the office — the presidency — that he created? As Aaron Burr tells us in the musical Hamilton, “Every American experiment sets a precedent.” What was the presidency that George Washington created? What was he like, and what might he think of US politics today?

Alexis Coe: He didn't want to be king and he was very sensitive about that, and we have a monarchy-weary country. We've just fought this long war and we're trying to be this model of democracy in the world, in a world of monarchs. He doesn't want to be king.

Michael Waldman: Historian Alexis Coe takes a closer look at the first president of the United States — and what his story teaches us about the country’s current challenges — in her latest book, You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington.

Alexis Coe: The thing about setting up these institutions is he was quite aware of how fragile they were in a way that we would do well to consider … He warned against unprincipled men who were obsessed with power and only cared about keeping power, not about helping out and achieving goals for the country and for citizens who were land-owning white men at the time.

Michael Waldman: This is Brennan Center LIVE, a project of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. I’m Michael Waldman. This program was recorded in February 2020.

Michael Waldman: Alexis Coe is joined in conversation with Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University.


Alexis Coe: If someone had told me 10 years ago that my second book would be on George Washington, I would've thought they were insane. But I love presidential biographies and I usually read two or three in conversation with each other. And at the end, I feel like I emerge with not only an understanding of the man, but also the approach to him. When I finished George Washington biographies, I never felt that way, and because I read them in conversation, I felt as if people who wrote these biographies almost took a pledge that they would all have the same thesis, they would proceed in the same way, and they also had these fixations that seemed odd to me.

And when I started looking into them, because it's not that difficult to check sources, historian or not — especially with the founders, there's something called Founders Online through Library of Congress — I very quickly realized that they had just repeated certain things, they had taken other things for granted, and that these fixations had created biases, a bias. And then what they did was they missed other things. There were all these opportunities that they just completely didn't see. It was this monomaniacal mission to protect George Washington, to revere him, to treat the subject of a biography in a way that I'm not totally comfortable with.

I tend to like microhistories and I think that that certainly influenced this biography. Microhistories are approaches that are focused on issues like, for instance, Jefferson and Sally Hemings, slavery, Indians — these other groups that have either been ignored, or minimized, or dismissed, or viewed as not as important as the man himself.

But what I realized, what I loved about microhistories is that you could get the whole history. You could get the entire cradle-to-casket story in about 700 pages fewer, and that to me was definitely appealing. Then I started to think about, I couldn't suggest a George Washington biography. And I thought about who reads presidential biographies, and this also happened ... I proposed the book before Trump was elected, but I had begun to think of the way that people talked about my interest in presidential history — sort of that it was odd.

And it vexed me a little bit, as if it was like a peculiar interest that I had, and I didn't think that it was that strange. I knew plenty of other people who were interested in presidential history; they just weren't young women or people of color. And I felt like that was the fault of the historians because if history is boring or if it is exclusive, if it excludes certain groups, then that's the historian's fault.

Julian Zelizer: And I'll say, we're going to turn to George Washington now. The book itself, not only is it not a incredibly lengthy tome, and I say that in a good way — it's a really engaging read and by the size, usually presidential history these days, a thousand pages plus, so you're not really in the field. But even inside the book, it's visually different. You kind of have material and little, not sidebars. Did you think about that as part of what you were trying to do?

Alexis Coe: The way … I've mentioned that these biographies start out the same way in which they declare George Washington is too marble to be real. “We're going to break him out of this mold,” or, “We're going to break the marble and start to really understand who he is.” But they then would describe for like 20 or 50 pages his body and his thighs, and so I've come to call them the “Thigh Men of Dad History.”

At first, it struck me as funny. It's funny, and I hadn't really intended to share that with everyone else, much like the title, which I'll get to. I'll answer that question. But I thought, "Okay, he's a challenging person to write about because he wanted to protect himself from ... He wanted to be in charge of his legacy because they're proceeding the same way." I was trying to figure it out, and so I began to make these lists of things that helped me understand who he was. Who was he friends with? What writers did he like? What did he drink? What did he eat? Animals — he called his dog Sweet Lips. There's nothing marble about that.

I compiled these, and then I thought a lot as I did with my first book — my experience and exhibitions — that it's such a shame when I get to go in the archives, and then I just describe everything to people. I think there is a lot of use and that that's our job, but sometimes it's really, the story is best told and enhanced by other things like lists or what we would call listicles now. History books do have these visual elements, but they're often in the middle. They're sort of shoved in the middle and they don't really do anything for you.

And because I so wanted this to be a book that not only brought us closer to George Washington, but also invited people who do feel alienated by the genre in, I wanted them to feel like experts. And so then, I started to realize that I had to show people my work in this way and that I wanted it to not only be at the front of the book, but I wanted it to be at the front of each section so that you would feel like, “I've never read a book on George Washington, I don't really know the founding era. I know these things that have been made sort of fun and entertaining for me, and now I can proceed as an expert.”

Julian Zelizer: What's something about George Washington before he becomes president that tells us who he was just as a person? Who was this guy?

Alexis Coe: I think one of the fun things about George Washington that I didn't really think of before: He's a social climber. That comes from a real desire, a real American story — he's a capitalist, but it also comes from a pretty rough upbringing, one of scarcity and deprivation. And that was another really interesting thing. Why don't we think about George Washington in the same group as Obama, or Clinton, or Ford, or other people we talk about who were really informed by their upbringing by being raised by a single woman?

But these biographies, these Thigh Men would talk about his dad Augustine, who died when he was 10, or his half brother, who seemed to just be his most advantageous relation, and he didn't really seem to spend much time with him. But his mother's efforts were completely minimized. And so I really enjoyed seeing all of Washington's efforts to get ahead, and sometimes they were fun. He really wanted to marry up. He was always writing to eligible women's fathers and trying to get them interested, and they were never interested.

Then he tries to get ahead through the army, through fighting for the British, and I think that's so important to introduce people to and walk them through things that we don't talk about a lot, like the French and Indian War, for example. So, we understand that he would have done anything for the British, anything to get that commission, and had they given it to him, I'm not sure ... I mean, we might be British subjects. He tries and he tries, and gets really impatient.

Everyone talks about him being guarded. He wasn't. That was something he really cultivated in himself because it got him in trouble when he was younger. Then he meets the rich widow of his dreams, Martha Dandridge Custis, and she becomes Washington very, very quickly. I think that was what was most interesting to me, is how differently ... If his life had just gone slightly differently, if he'd gotten that promotion, if he had married into a family that had a royal commission to sell land in Virginia, if any of those things had happened, he would not have rebelled. He was reluctant. He was not ready to … He was not running, and I don't think any of the Virginia founders really were eager to take up arms.

Julian Zelizer: Was he someone who thought about weighty issues, meaning before ... Was he one of those people who was concerned about the community, whatever the government was doing? Was that the kind of person he was, or?

Alexis Coe: He craved … Washington wanted to be the epicenter of some story. That's absolutely true. And at first, that was Virginia's story, and how do you go about that in colonial Virginia? You run for the Assembly, you go to every single church. People have asked me a lot about religion over the last couple of weeks. I call him a warm Deist. I mean, if you had a church, he was going to show up because that was just good politicking. He was community minded, but he also very much understood that that was the way to ingratiate himself and become a part of Virginia society.

And then after a while, I do think that a lot of these things become a part of him. I think the question is: Did he really love Martha, or did he love her money? I think at first, certainly he loved her money, but then I think he wanted her close to him at all times. I think he cared ... He had a real sense of service, which is something we see develop in presidents over time. He had all those boxes ticked. It just took a while. Young George Washington I would not like. I don't think many of us would.

Julian Zelizer: Okay. Was he funny?

Alexis Coe: Not on purpose.

Julian Zelizer: Not on purpose. So he wasn't a jokey kind of person?

Alexis Coe: No, no. He wasn't —

Julian Zelizer: That's not a myth.

Alexis Coe: No. I mean, there's dark humor. There's certainly dark humor when he's really frustrated with not getting paid the same amount as British soldiers, because he was very much a second-class citizen as someone who was born in a colony. It's all just gripes. He's just complaining about his pay, and the food, and the accommodations. To me that was pretty funny, but not “ha-ha.”

Julian Zelizer: You recently were at Mount Vernon, and that's now an iconic place. What did it mean to him? Why was it significant and what was his relationship to the place?

Alexis Coe: He inherited Mount Vernon when his half brother died. Washington was the eldest son from the second marriage. In early America, that meant you got nothing, and so Lawrence this half brother, he was always hanging out, hoping to ... Lawrence had married well to get connections, but Mount Vernon was a great boon to him. And when Lawrence died, he was able to rent it out for a while. And it was very stressful because of course, he was a tobacco planter and that never did well in that part of Virginia — just it’s not the right soil. It was really frustrating to him, but he had the estate that he really needed that boarded a lot of other very prestigious, much bigger estates to start socializing with people.

Then later, Mount Vernon as it's presented to me by the Thigh Men when I would read about it, they would present Mount Vernon as his great escape, like in a really romantic sense. That he would be fighting during the Revolution, or he would be in New York or Philadelphia — the first residences of the president — and he would just be thinking about, "Oh, I'm thinking about what it's like to look out and to sit in a chair and drink Madeira." That wasn't totally true. Washington was a serious businessman. I pity the fool who messed with his money.

He looked at Mount Vernon as a moneymaking machine, and he was obsessed with it. He was always writing about it, and a part of that venture, a huge part of his business, I mean … that was the hundreds of people he enslaved, and that's not really introduced when he thinks about Mount Vernon. And that was really important to me, to understand what it was he saw on a daily basis. So Trump said that Washington had two desks. He didn't. There wasn't enough room in the New York residence. He complained about that a lot. But he did, in fact, operate his business at the same time — that's totally true.

Julian Zelizer: We made it 20 minutes without talking about Trump, but there goes that game we were playing. Tell me, tell us who William Lee was. You talk about that as an important relationship in his life.

Alexis Coe: Billy Lee … In the same way that Mount Vernon is romanticized as his escape, Billy Lee is the token enslaved person who people talk about to keep slavery close to the narrative, and also present Washington as — it's always sort of strange to say — but as a kind master. He's presented as someone who maybe Washington inherited when he was young. Sometimes there's very odd phrasing, that Billy Lee and his brother Frank, they were sold to Washington as if he was just like, "Fine, I'll take them."

It wasn't a passive thing. Washington went to Alexandria to purchase Billy Lee and his brother Frank, who was a butler, 15 years before the Revolution, so it was a relatively recent relationship. And Washington thought he was exceptional. He was an excellent horse rider; he was a great athlete like Washington. And so, he does treat him differently, and upon his death, he's the one person Washington emancipates. But that's always presented as Washington emancipated all his slaves upon his death, and that's not true — there's only one person.

And yet, while Washington thought of Billy Lee as exceptional, he was crippled in Washington's service — once through a fox hunting accident, another during the war. And instead of taking Billy Lee to the ... Instead of taking him to New York and then to Philadelphia, he instead leaves him at home. And he gives him a different job and replaces him with a younger man. I found all that really interesting, the way that Billy Lee is built up, and then how quickly Washington ... He feels as if he gives him his due in his will, but he's not really ... He's not treating him in the way that one would think based on how important he's presented to the readers.

Julian Zelizer: Martha. What's your take on their relationship and its significance to this story?

Alexis Coe: Martha, also … We envision Martha not as a young woman. We envision her as always wearing that bonnet and being an older woman, and of course that's not true. They met in their late 20s and she was a really strong force in their marriage. But she was not someone who enjoyed the spotlight. I don't think either of them did, but when she was ... Before we called them the First Lady, she was in fact the First Lady, she's got a ton of jobs that she's not really interested in. She was very into ... She lost a lot of children, both her own children and then children she adopted.

The Washingtons had so many children even though Washington didn't have any biological children, and that was what she wanted to do. She wanted to remain in Virginia and she wanted to raise children. And instead, she has to travel. He always wants her nearby during the war. She has to get inoculated; she's deathly afraid of that. And then she has to just entertain nonstop. And there's one really revealing letter in which she writes to one of her adopted — her niece who she is very close with and she regards as a daughter — it was sort of heartbreaking. She said, "I think that this job would be so much better” — because she does think of it as a job — “for a woman who is younger and a little bit more vivacious."

Julian Zelizer: What about their relationship itself? What did you learn about that?

Alexis Coe: We don't know a lot about their relationship because, like a lot of founding couples, they burned their correspondence. They were not separated as much as Abigail and John Adams.

Julian Zelizer: But when did they burn them?

Alexis Coe: Martha burned the letters when Washington died, and it must've been some agreement that they had. She doesn't attend his funeral, which I find really interesting, and I think that's because she felt like her service was done. She no longer owed the country anything. But what we do know is that in ... A couple letters have been found. One was stuffed in the back of a drawer — all these really exciting stuff for historians. We know that he called her Patsy — we didn't know that until recently — and that he did want her around all the time, and that he showed a great amount of care and concern for anything that was important to her.

Whether it was the food that she liked, the accommodation she liked, her children, he was effortful, endlessly effortful with her children. And she — I think because of her experience with loss — did baby her children and did want them near. At one point, they're raising another child, a grandson, “Washi” Washington, and he's not doing well. He moves from Columbia to Annapolis, and he’s sort of He's failing out of every school. And Washington is lecturing him about losing his umbrella. He’s announcing in a letter he wants to marry a merchant's daughter. Washington really wants him to stay at school, and Martha brings him home and hires a bunch of tutors. So I think as a couple, their contention was over raising children, definitely. But otherwise, it seemed lovely and they seemed very much aligned.

Julian Zelizer: And when he becomes president, what did the presidency mean at that moment to him or to the people around him?

Alexis Coe: The founders conceived of the presidency with Washington in mind. Washington is marking up the Constitution. He's writing “president,” he's annotating things. No one has ever occupied this office and this space, which is forever moving, and so he's establishing the office as he goes forward. And that means figuring out, who will he go to you for advice? And so at first, he follows everything by the letter of the law and he tries to talk to Congress. He sends questions ahead of time, just like he did during the war, and they're overwhelmed by his presence.

They don't know what to do, and it's one of these rare moments where Washington just completely loses it and he yells at them. They won't give him an answer, and he's like, "Why did I come here?" Because he is a general, and I think that was one of his greatest challenges as a president. He wasn’t … He was used to listening to a lot of opinions and then handing down his answer, and expecting everyone to fall in line, and that just didn't … that didn't happen, so he was naive and he thought, "Okay, I can put together this team of rivals."

Jefferson, who is a Francophile and wants sort of loose organization, and then there's Hamilton who believes in a strong central government and wants to mimic everything about the British. They fight, and Jefferson will later describe this — which I found really jarring — as a cockfight. Washington is looking over, and he's basically watching them draw blood from each other. And of course, of course this was going to spill out into the street, and of course this was going to be talked about and it was going to inflame partisan tensions.

But Washington truly believed he could just be this unifying figure. He could tell everyone that he was going to make the best decisions and tell them to get along, and it would all be fine. And instead what happened was the birth of our partisan nightmare, which we think is terrible but was definitely very bad back then.

Julian Zelizer: And you say he carried around a copy of the Constitution that was marked up?

Alexis Coe: He did. He annotated it. It says “president,” and he has the most lovely handwriting — which, as a historian, as you know, is really nice. His signature in particular is lovely.

Julian Zelizer: What did he do with that? I mean, was he trying to follow what he should do? Was this a little rule book?

Alexis Coe: He was, and then he had to get creative. So for example, consulting with Congress didn't work. He didn't have time to write lengthy letters to people and then get responses, and then follow up questions. Nothing would ever get done, so he established the cabinet, as I've discussed. He, at times, sidestepped the Constitution when there was a rebellion — the Whiskey Rebellion. It was the rebellion that never was. He got really excited, and part of this is Hamilton. He's always listening to Hamilton. It's not because Hamilton has cast a spell on him, which is sort of what Jefferson and Madison and that whole crew thought. It's that he believed fundamentally in Hamilton's worldview and this idea of really strong central government.

Hamilton gets all up in arms, literally, and says, "If the government is showing force, it has come out like Hercules." And Washington — and something that has never been repeated — sidesteps the Constitution, gets a judicial writ, rides out with the state militia to confront these whiskey producers in rural Pennsylvania and Kentucky, and thinks better of it at the last moment. Like, "Oh, I'm President. I probably shouldn't be seen drawing arms on my own people." He's not riding on a horse at this time because he is an older man. He's in a very fancy carriage.

But he turns around, which is really good because when they got to the field where actually he had had a wonderful moment when he was in the British Service, there's pretty much no one there. They had thought there would be six, seven thousand people. There's no one there. They really have to work hard to round people up. Jefferson, Madison, they're all talking about it. They can't believe that he would do this. The papers go wild, and it's rough for Washington. He's very sensitive about criticism, but he also just can't let it go. The next time he addresses Congress, he talks about these factions who were definitely influenced by foreigners. He just cannot stop inflaming tensions, even though he doesn't want to. That's his stated goal — he's against it.

Julian Zelizer: And how does he think of power? He's in this new position, it's a new institution, a new country, and then he has the power that he couldn't have imagined 10 years or earlier, 20 years. How does he think of the power that has been given him at a personal level, not at a formal institutional level?

Alexis Coe: I see Washington's ambition, his sort of reckless ambition, in the way that he was so demanding. It wasn't a good look. I see that subside when he becomes the general. I think he did … He had everything that he wanted, however ... And he didn't want to be king. He was very sensitive about that, and we have a monarchy-weary country. We've just fought this long war and we're trying to be this model of democracy in the world, in a world of monarchs. He doesn't want to be king, that's how he and Adams had their first little tussle.

Adams, he decides that Washington should have a very fancy title — His Highness — and it goes on, and on, and on. It's totally ridiculous and it's very embarrassing. And Adams never shakes this — both being known as someone who loves royal titles, and also he never earns Washington's trust. They were an odd coupling, but it could've been great. They complemented each other in so many ways, but that's how, as Adams famously said, the office of the vice president is basically irrelevant because of him and his early actions. So Washington, at the same time, feels very comfortable with his power. He doesn't want to be a king, but he also has these impulses of a general where he does want to control things in this way that just doesn't work, and we don't see again until we have another military leader.

Julian Zelizer: So the myth about him which revolves around his giving up his power, that is true?

Alexis Coe: That's absolutely true, and he did so readily. He didn't want it. I truly believe that. In 1775, when he and the other founding fathers meet and Lexington and Concord has happened, he wants to be the leader of the revolution. He stuffs himself in his old uniform and he was like, "Oh no, I couldn't possibly." He's going around to every church; he's going to every house. He's a busy man. He's running for general. When he gives up power, he wants to go home. He really wants to be home by Christmas and he is serious about that. He also … Mount Vernon has fallen into disrepair, it hasn't been ... Nothing is ever as well managed as he wants it to be, but it really isn't. And I think he just wants to live a quiet life.

But then, he watches … In the book I talk about it as sort of like a pregnancy. He carried the country to term and now it's the fourth trimester and he can't ... He needs to make sure it's happy and healthy, and so he gets dragged back into it. But every time he's given up power, he absolutely wants to, definitely. And when he leaves the presidency, it's his choice. We set limits, four years, but that could've gone on for quite some time. He's done. He doesn't even want to stay for eight years.

Julian Zelizer: I thought you had a chart in your book, and maybe I'm wrong but maybe I'm right, on people who liked him before, and who don't like him who know him by the end of his presidency. It's a great part of the book. Can you walk us through a few of those and why you wanted to highlight that part of him?

Alexis Coe: Yes.

Julian Zelizer: Yeah, you did. Okay. I thought I —

Alexis Coe: Frenemies. Frenemies.

Julian Zelizer: Frenemies, that's right. I knew it was something good.

Alexis Coe: We hear about the founders so much, and they're presented as a monolith — they were a group of guys who were fighting for the same cause. That's simply not true. There’s so much praise, because Washington was ... All the founders thought he was the only guy for the job. He was charismatic. He had something that attracted people to him, and they would describe him in the loftiest of terms. I mean, he was practically a god.

And then, everything goes to hell and it's just like a burn book. So with Thomas Paine, for example, before … During the Revolution, he is talking about how Washington is one of the most amazing people who has ever lived, that he has the morality of a saint, that he is to be trusted with power, with basically anything that is important to any individual. And at the end, he calls him a fraud and says that the world will uncover what he's really about. Same with Jefferson — nothing but praise, and at the end he basically says, "Well, Washington is going to emerge unscathed like usual. Nothing sticks to him."

So, there's a lot of resentment and there's divisiveness.

Julian Zelizer: How uncertain were they, or was he, about where this was all going to unfold — meaning the republic?

Alexis Coe: I think they were pretty nervous about it, particularly Washington. The thing about setting up these institutions is he was quite aware of how fragile they were in a way that we would do well to consider. The British Empire was corrupt; it had fallen into decay, and that was their greatest fear, that ... His farewell addresses is quite famous — and certainly has been quoted often of late because it seems really relevant — which is that he warned against unprincipled men who were obsessed with power and only cared about keeping power, not about helping out and achieving goals for the country and for citizens, who were land-owning white men at the time. He talks a lot about foreign influence and how it's quite dangerous, so I think he left pretty worried about the whole thing. They called it an experiment for a reason.

Julian Zelizer: After bringing back and discovering the person who George Washington was, after looking at him as a human not just as a statue, how does your conclusions about his presidency, his legacy, his impact — how does it differ from some of those work some people might be familiar with?

Alexis Coe: I don't feel the need to protect George Washington. He's just fine; he's going to be fine. There's no way that I could really hurt him, and so I don't ... I've been called irreverent a lot. Why is that remarkable? Why do we accept that biographers revere their subject, particularly when it comes to a president? If we emerge with an understanding of someone like George Washington who, if he's marble, it's because we've made him marble because he's been presented as perfect.

He's described this way by his contemporaries and by historians, even in the last decade. If we understand that he was a bunch of things that didn't make sense, that he made a lot of mistakes, that he was not all knowing …

Julian Zelizer: It's understanding their flaws.

Alexis Coe: Balanced.

Julian Zelizer: Balanced. Fair and balanced.

Alexis Coe: Yes, as much as I can be.

Alexis Coe: He wasn't certain about the survival of America. He cared about America and he cared about service in a lot of different ways that weren't perfect, but were really important. He struggled to be better. He wasn't born great, he wasn't destined to be great, he wasn't destined to be president. That denies him a lot of the work that he was doing throughout his life. And he didn't achieve all his goals, he didn't achieve all my goals for him, but he was trying pretty hard in a really genuine way.

Julian Zelizer: The title, which You Never Forget Your First is both funny, but it also actually conveys a point. Can you just tell us briefly why you ended up going with that title?

Alexis Coe: When I realized I wanted to write a book on George Washington, that's not the easiest sell. And I thought very carefully about how to craft this pitch to my agent. And so, the subject was “You Never Forget Your First,” and then the content said, "I want to write a biography of George Washington. And before you say no, you can't talk about his teeth, you can't talk about the cherry tree, you can’t tell me that he was president."

I named all those things, and then I said, "Now tell me what you know." And then he wrote back — he's famous for these one-line emails, and he wrote back, "Okay, tell me more." Everyone will ask, “Why do we need another biography of George Washington?” And it just kept staying because every time I gave a talk, it did exactly what it's supposed to do, which is, people heard You Never Forget Your First and they sort of looked at me and maybe thought I was writing a romance novel, I don't know.

And then the subtitle would come — A Biography of George Washington — and then everyone would laugh and they would ask me a ton of questions at the end. And what I realized was that it might come off as a bit silly, but that it conveyed everything that I hoped for the book and the title was essential to it, and now I love it.


Michal Waldman: Thank you for listening to this episode of Brennan Center LIVE with Alexis Coe and Julian Zelizer.  

Please look out for Brennan Center events, follow us on social media, and sign up for my newsletter, “The Briefing,” at BRENNANCENTER DOT ORG. The Brennan Center LIVE podcast is available on our website and wherever you get your podcasts.

Upcoming Events