I think of myself as someone who likes reading historical stuff, but I’m also too impatient to read biographical tomes of historical figures. So I usually stick to articles or any relevant items I come across during some other endeavor. So this book would ideally not even be on my radar, but I stumbled upon it when I saw that the first biography of GW by a woman historian in a long time is being criticized a lot, and I really wanted to see what the fuss was all about. I also really enjoyed reading the author’s interview and wanted to know more of her writing style. And I’m so glad I picked up this book because I was in a slump and this might just have pulled me out of it.
The first thing I want to say about this book is that it’s fun and accessible and once you start reading it, you will want to continue. Also unlike Chernow’s biography or any of the others which have been written about Washington, this one is not intimidating and is comfortably just around 300 pages. That makes it definitely much more enticing to a rare history/biography reader like me who just wants to gain some basic knowledge about the subject but doesn’t need to do a deep dive into their entire life. The author has also been criticized for not being sufficiently reverential towards GW, and while I understand the place Washington has in American hearts, I don’t know why she is expected to be reverential when she is in actuality not writing a hagiography.
The author spends a good amount of page time into aspects of Washington’s life that we probably are not very familiar with (or maybe just I am not) like his relationships with his various family members, his worries about leaving a pristine legacy, his later estrangement with many of the members of his first cabinet, his handling of criticism during the presidency and ultimately his handling of the people he enslaved, and never actually freed. I thought the author managed to give a well rounded picture of the person behind the myth that is Washington and she makes it very enjoyable to read, and I never wanted to put the book down.
I also thought she was very objective in her writing, never overly praising nor criticizing where it wasn’t due. But she does reserve a bit of criticism for the previous famous (male) biographers who are largely responsible for creating exaggerated stories about Washington, making him into a larger than life figure and she rightfully calls them out for being obsessed about his virility and athletic prowess, and some even misrepresenting his treatment of his enslaved people. She has a table listing all the derogatory terms various historians have used to describe Washington’s mother, which left a lasting impression on me and it brought to mind one of my recent reads, Pretty Bitches, where many women authors talk about all the words that are used as weapons against women – I thought it was appalling that these biographers found it necessary to put Mary Washington down to elevate his stature.
To conclude, if you want to get started with some light historical reading about our first President but don’t really want to begin with award winning large tomes, I promise you can’t go wrong with this one. The writing is very easy to read, it’s fun and very enjoyable while also being informative, and with a huge list of sources. I really loved reading it, but I think I would recommend it to readers unfamiliar with the subject rather than history nerds who are looking for more in-depth accounts.