TRAVELS WITH GEORGE
In Search of Washington and His Legacy
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Early in his first term as president, George Washington visited every state in the Union. The United States was relatively new, having won its independence half a dozen years earlier; the presidency and the Constitution were brand-new. Think of Washington’s trips as test-drives.
Nathaniel Philbrick is a prizewinning maritime historian who has recently turned his attention to the founding period. “Travels With George” is an account of his retracing Washington’s footsteps — and carriage tracks — accompanied by his wife, Melissa, and their Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, Dora. The book is a hybrid: part history, part travelogue.
Philbrick’s survey of Washington’s journeys draws on his own knowledge of the period, and on his eye for detail. He begins with Washington’s eight-day trip in April 1789 from Mount Vernon to New York City, then the nation’s capital, to be inaugurated. Washington’s election had been unanimous, and his journey through Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey was a rolling ovation. The crowds that greeted him when he arrived in New York, one congressman wrote, were “thick as ears of corn before the harvest.” In the fall of 1789 he spent a month traveling in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. (Rhode Island, still hesitating to ratify the Constitution, was pointedly excluded; he picked up that state in August 1790 after it had seen the light.) In April 1790 he toured Long Island, possibly to thank the members of the Culper Ring, the spies who had kept watch on British-occupied New York during the Revolution; protective of his assets, like all good spymasters, he never admitted that this was what he was doing. His journey through Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia in the spring and early summer of 1791 was a bear, taking three months to cover more than 1,800 miles.
Washington, according to a French diplomat at the time, had “the advantage of uniting great dignity with great simplicity of manner.” This gift enabled him to embody both the monarchical and populist yin and yang of the presidency. In Boston, homeowners rented their windows so that admirers could get a glimpse of him; in Charleston he was greeted by the intendant (mayor) carrying a six-foot-tall gold crowned staff. In Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island, by contrast, he stopped to help raise a rafter of a one-room schoolhouse, led the workmen in three cheers and left a dollar to treat them. He made a point of staying in inns and paying his own way, so as not to be beholden to anyone, but this independent-mindedness caused difficulties of its own. Twice in New England, hostelries turned him away; once in North Carolina his entourage, after a dawn start, enjoyed a big breakfast at a roadside house only to discover that they had barged into a private dwelling.