About the Book
George Washington—hero of the French and Indian War, commander in chief of the Continental Army, and first president of the United States—died on December 14, 1799. The myth-making began immediately thereafter, and the Washington mythos crafted after his death remains largely intact. But what do we really know about Washington as an upper-class man?
Washington is frequently portrayed by his biographers as America at its unflinching best: tall, shrewd, determined, resilient, stalwart, and tremendously effective in action. But this aggressive and muscular version of Washington is largely a creation of the nineteenth century. Eighteenth-century ideals of upper-class masculinity would have preferred a man with refined aesthetic tastes, graceful and elegant movements, and the ability and willingness to clearly articulate his emotions. At the same time, these eighteenth-century men subjected themselves to intense hardship and inflicted incredible amounts of violence on each other, their families, their neighbors, and the people they enslaved. Valsania considers Washington's complexity and apparent contradictions in three main areas: his physical life (often bloody, cold, injured, muddy, or otherwise unpleasant), his emotional world (sentimental, loving, and affectionate), and his social persona (carefully constructed and maintained). In each, he notes, the reality diverges from the legend quite drastically. Ultimately, Valsania challenges readers to reconsider what they think they know about Washington.
Aided by new research, documents, and objects that have only recently come to light, First Among Men tells the fascinating story of a living and breathing person who loved, suffered, moved, gestured, dressed, ate, drank, and had sex in ways that may be surprising to many Americans. In this accessible, detailed narrative, Valsania presents a full, complete portrait of Washington as readers have rarely seen him before: as a man, a son, a father, and a friend.
About the Author
Maurizio Valsania is professor of American History at the University of Turin, Italy.
He is the author of The Limits of Optimism: Thomas Jefferson's Dualistic Enlightenment (UVA Press, 2011), Nature's Man: Thomas Jefferson's Philosophical Anthropology (UVA Press, 2013), and Jefferson’s Body: A Corporeal Biography (UVA Press, 2017). He is the recipient of several fellowships from leading academic institutions, including the American Antiquarian Society, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the Library Company, the John D. Rockefeller Library, the DAAD (Germany), and the International Center for Jefferson Studies.
He has written for the OUP Blog (Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World) and collaborated with the BBC World Service.
Maurizio Valsania worked on this book while a member of the Washington Library’s class of 2020-2021 research fellows.