The War over telling History

Amazon Customers loved this book on George Washington but not all the book’s reviewers agreed with the general consensus. Thus:

This is what happens when a generation of “historians” are indoctrinated by their teachers and professors to frauds like Howard Zinn. Sadly people like this author are the ones teaching the next generation.”

I have paid close attention to the reviews of books in Amazon from my first few Online purchases. In some cases those reviews have helped me choose between half a dozen books on the same subject. I look for thoughtful, accurate, readable and short books to fill up the holes in my history. I was well over halfway through reading Alexis Coe’s book on Washington before I checked the Amazon review. I had Claudia order a kindle version after I heard author Coe interviewed on National Public Radio.

So what explains the Two sentence put down being elevated to the top of the reviews in Amazon? It got the second most “up” votes on the site, that’s how. And yet, if you look at the ratings chart as of this morning you will see that the vast majority of the book’s readers gave it five stars. That meant the relatively few one and two star reviews got a lot more attention from people disenchanted with the book.

I didn’t rate it but then I’m writing my own review of the book here.

As I am writing a book myself that I hope to be modestly breezy, I have thoroughly enjoyed the book as has Claudia. I have only read one other biography on Washington. That was forty years ago when I read the one volume treatment The Indispenseble Man from the Washington guru Thomas Flexner an author from the seventies. (For even more serious historians he had a three or four volume history of our foremost founder) I’ve read a couple other histories in which Washington loomed large but they were not full fledged bios just treatmwnts of narrower parts of his life like 1776 by David McCullough. Coe’s is the first bio I’ve read since Flexner’s book.

I was looking for both a Cliffs note version of the book and one with fresh insights. I found both in Coe. Here’s my case for Coe.

Americans don’t know their history. Americans who don’t know their history are often the first people to say this and in some cases when people say this they are implying that they do know the history and people they disagree with don’t. I was so taken with a story on the Pulitzer winning All American Life that I high lighted it on my blog a while back. Its the story of a black woman who was hired at Mt. Vernon National Park to play a black slave for tourists. She recalls the sweet elderly white woman who walked into the slave quarters where she was doing menial tasks who asked her about what she was demonstrating. When she explained to the elderly tourist she was a slave the woman stopped her cold and told her George Washington didn’t have slaves. The tourist who had lived through six or seven decades of American History and cared enough about it to visit Mt. Vernon didn’t know a damned thing. That’s why Alexesi Coe’s Washington history is so necessary. Who the hell but a history snob is going to read dozens of 800 page histories of our famous historical characters?

I have several such books on my shelves awaiting the week I devote to them, Chernow’s Hamilton and Grant among them. But if you look at my Reading list which includes only those books I have actually read cover to cover you will see I nibble at a great many historical topics.

George Washington was not only an interesting man he was a man worthy of Coe’s history. No one should be expected to live up the standards that can’t possibly prevail for another two hundred years. Its how he lived his life in the 18th century that counts and by that measure Coe gives him, if not the century, ample praise.

I celebrate a book that modern Americans will flock to and thus begin to understand the influence of this brave and decent man who as Coe holds out to her readers none more credible than his great opponent King George himself who said of Washington when he took no action to become the American Emperor after defeating Britain said (allegedly) of him: “If [Washington] does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” And the comment of another man of equal historical prominence Napoleon Bonaparte who did crown him self emperor, “They wanted me to be another Washington.” As Coe adds, “But he couldn’t be. No one could.” That’s high praise even from an author who enjoys poking holes in our myths.

And there is one more thing I might end to the myth worshipers. Coe does have some simple charts and one is of his six contempories most of the Presidents themselves. It listed their own reviews of Washington before he became President. This was then compared to their accounts of Washington after he had been President. The former were all glowing the later all lamentable. If George Washington’s contemporaries could treat him as human I only see profit in having contemporary historians doing the same. And yes. Washington had a hell of a lot of slaves. He even had their teeth knocked out when he needed one to replace one in his own mouth.

Can anyone seriously image Donald Trump being bothered at the thought of buying an executed Chinese prisoner’s kidneys for an ailing family member if not getting it would mean their death?

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