By Lily Wolfson
New York City, New York
In her 2020 New York Times bestseller, You Never Forget Your First, Alexis Coe writes that the narrative surrounding George Washington is too good to be true. Coe debunks the dubious myths about Washington and calls into question his romanticized legacy in favor of a more complete, nuanced historiography.
“Washington is a fully-formed human if you allow him to be, but he’s not perfect. He’s not close to perfect,” Coe said.
For centuries, male historians and biographers have depicted Washington as a hero and a flawless caricature; Coe is the first woman to write a biography of Washington in over one hundred years. She previously published Alice+Freda Forever: A Murder in Memphis, is the host of “No Man’s Land” from The Wing/Pineapple and co-hosted “Presidents Are People Too!” on Audible. Coe has contributed to Elle and The New York Times Magazine, among many other publications. A more thorough list of Coe’s accomplishments is on her website.
Coe is no rookie; and yet, when she appeared at Washington symposiums, male historians assumed she must have been someone’s wife or graduate student; she was often the only woman at these events doing her own work. When probed incessantly about what she could contribute to Washington’s legacy, Coe said, “It’s a biography, like a man would write.”
Coe enters the genre with precision and accuracy. She cites a myriad of primary sources, which male biographer of Washington Ron Chernow neglected to use to back up his claims that Coe disproves. Coe uses her acerbic wit when joking about the “Thigh Men,” the male biographers of Washington who spend hundreds of pages marveling over Washington’s physique.
Coe’s book is only about 300 pages compared to male biographers’ often 1,000-pages. Coe gets the job done efficiently; she tells Washington’s story without writing through an obsolete, patriarchal lens.
Coe purposefully dedicates a chapter to dispelling the myths male biographers have perpetuated about Washington’s mother, Mary. With absolutely no evidence, Chernow, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Washington, writes that Mary was illiterate, bothersome, uppity and even shrewish; he also claims that Mary stringently held her son back in life.
Meanwhile, Coe offers substantial evidence––letters written by Mary––that Mary could indeed read and write. Coe further notes that the only documented interactions between Mary and her son were positive, with no evidence indicating that Mary ever hindered her son’s success. She reveals that Chernow had invented drama between Washington and his mother without any primary source evidence. Coe said, “By denying the reality of the relationship between Washington and his mother, we were missing out on a great American story.”
Coe reveals the truth about Washington’s allegedly wooden teeth, too. He did lose his teeth, but he actually pulled and stole teeth from enslaved people and farm animals to replace his own rather than using wood, as myths about Washington suggest.
Coe also questions male historians’ obsession with Washington’s masculinity and ability as a military general. She explains—via a detailed chart of all battles in which Washington fought—that the general actually lost far more battles than he won.
Coe suggests that a reevaluation of our view of Washington is long overdue. If you read You Never Forget Your First, you will find yourself in resounding agreement.
After Coe’s biography of Washington was published, she emailed Chernow to express gratitude for his contribution to history and all she had learned from him in the process of writing You Never Forget Your First. She also acknowledged that there was much on which they disagreed. Though Chernow never replied to Coe’s email, Coe describes their relationship as a “wordless ceasefire” whereby for a period they simply did not comment on each other’s works.
As she wrote in her newsletter, Coe assumed it was Chernow’s “style” to be more elusive. She was incredulous when Chernow publicly berated Jessie Serfilippi, a 27-year-old interpreter at the Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany, New York.
Chernow, in his critically acclaimed Alexander Hamilton, maintains that Hamilton was an abolitionist. Serfilippi, in a paper called “‘As Odious and Immoral a Thing’: Alexander Hamilton’s Hidden History as an Enslaver,” presents evidence that Hamilton did in fact own slaves. Chernow did not enjoy being contradicted and consequently made malicious comments about Serfilippi’s work to multiple news outlets, claiming that Serfilippi’s paper was filled with “bald conclusions.”
Coe said, “[Chernow] accused [Serfilippi] of everything that he does, and he did so as a man in his sixties who has everything, knowing that he might ruin her.”
Chernow did not provide evidence for what he had claimed. Serfilippi did. In fact, as Coe noted in her newsletter (appropriately entitled “Chernow Gonna Chernow”), Serfilippi acknowledged potential contradictory evidence and that Hamilton had criticized slavery.
Consider the implications of someone like Chernow denouncing a budding historian like Serfilippi. Coe had originally declined to comment on the controversy surrounding Serfilippi and Chernow; however, as attacks on Serfilippi increased, Coe realized that as the most well-known young female historian, she had to speak up. Established historians like Joanne Freeman and Annette Gordon-Reed have given praise to Serfilippi’s work, so why couldn’t Chernow choose to be open-minded, too? He did not have to praise Serfilippi––preparing to reevaluate the narrative around Hamilton’s relationship with slavery would have sufficed. But Chernow had other plans. Surely Chernow knew he could destroy Serfilippi’s nascent career. He deliberately lied to the press about Serfilippi not acknowledging contradictory evidence and ignored the fact that she did provide evidence for her claims.
Coe stressed the importance of holding established male historians accountable, especially since they are rarely pushed to defend themselves and hold much power in controlling the narrative. Chernow’s words incited more attacks directed at not only Serfilippi and her work, but Coe’s biography of Washington, too.
“He went after a woman just a couple years into her career with such vengeance––when he was wrong––that I felt the need to confront him more directly in my newsletter, which was quite risky because he is powerful. I am successful, but I didn’t influence the creation of Hamilton the musical, and I knew I would pay a price,” Coe said.
Since Chernow’s un-founded remarks, a scaldingly negative review of Coe’s book has been upvoted hundreds of times on Amazon, giving potential readers the impression that they should forget about You Never Forget Your First. “Even with that, no regrets. I am so very happy I did it,” Coe said.
Coe is “very aware” that sexism exists in her field and urges society to confront it forthcomingly when necessary. However, Coe said, “You never want to let it inhibit your work and your progress because that is exactly what they want.”
Chernow is consciously abusing his power as a Pulitzer Prize–winning, world-renowned historian to tear female historians down. Until we start listening to women in the field like Coe and Serfillipi, who have always done the homework and cited primary sources, we continue to perpetuate sexism and permit the erasure of history.