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You Never Forget Your First
A Biography of George Washington
- Read in 13 minutes
- Audio & text available
- Contains 8 key ideas
You Never Forget Your First (2020) is a playful history of America’s first president, the first biography of George Washington to be written by a woman in over 40 years. A unique departure from the typical Washington biography, these blinks cut through the hero worship to reveal a nuanced character with problems – just like the rest of us.
Key idea 1 of 8
Many of the most famous stories about Washington simply aren’t true.
You know that joke about history being so named because it’s literally “his story”? Well, corny as the saying may be, it’s kind of true. History has typically been written by men, about men, and for men.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the stories we tell about George Washington, America’s Revolutionary War hero and first president. He’s the subject of hundreds of biographies, artworks, and memorials, including the one-dollar bill and a statue so massive that it’s carved into a literal mountain. Because he’s so revered, his story has attained cult status.
But when you actually cut through the hero worship, it turns out that several of our favorite stories aren’t based in reality at all.
The key message here is: Many of the most famous stories about Washington simply aren’t true.
Let’s take, for example, the old tale that Washington had wooden dentures, which kept him in constant agony. The fact that he was able to speak, let alone lead a country, is supposed to demonstrate his mighty stoicism and steadfast resolve.
But when you think about it, the story doesn’t make sense. Wood is an awful material for dentures, given its annoying tendency to rot. It’s true that Washington had terrible teeth – if any – but his dentures were actually made from a combination of animal teeth and human teeth that he bought from enslaved people at well below the going market rate.
The famous cherry tree incident also wilts under scrutiny. The story has a young Washington, overexcited by the gift of a new ax, chopping down his father’s favorite fruit tree. When questioned, Washington immediately confesses, uttering the famous line, “I cannot tell a lie.” Washington may have been many things, but an “arborcidal” maniac he was not. The story was invented by his first biographer in 1798.
That these stories have stayed with us throughout the years says more about us than it does about Washington. As the so-called Father of his Country, Washington’s character and actions are a reflection of our own.
But as we re-examine history from the perspectives of all of the participants, not just the great men, it becomes clear that history is more nuanced than we realize. Washington was a great man, sure, but he was also flawed, just like us. How he was able to overcome his normal-guy nature to become great, well, that’s a story worth telling.