Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy
“Nathaniel Philbrick has a genius for writing about pieces of history and intuiting broad themes and lessons therefrom.”
Nathaniel Philbrick has a genius for writing about pieces of history and intuiting broad themes and lessons therefrom. The celebrated author of Sea of Glory, In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower, Bunker Hill, and In the Hurricane’s Eye, has written a new book about President George Washington’s tour of the young United States between 1789 and 1791.
Travels with George is part history and part travelogue. Philbrick, inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, embarked on a journey to follow in Washington’s footsteps, visiting towns that Washington visited, locating historical sites where Washington “slept” or was greeted by prominent public officials, or where he conducted government business. Philbrick made this tour with his wife Melissa and their dog Dora.
The author divided the tour into five parts: Mount Vernon to New York (for Washington’s inauguration); New England; Long Island; Newport and Providence, Rhode Island (which Washington skipped during his earlier New England trip because Rhode Island had not yet ratified the Constitution), and the South.
At the outset of the book, Philbrick explains that in writing about America he prefers to “probe the darkness at the edge of our nation’s history.” He is interested, he writes, not in the triumphs but rather in the struggle. That is evident throughout Travels with George. And the two aspects of the early struggle of our nation that he probes throughout his travels are slavery and the nation’s growing political divide.
Philbrick is an admirer of Washington, but that admiration is qualified by Washington’s embrace of slavery. Without Washington’s military and political leadership, it is doubtful if the 13 colonies would have gained their independence and remained a democratic republic thereafter. He was, as biographer James Flexner wrote, the “indispensable man.”
Yet Washington owned many other human beings, used his slaves’ teeth to fill the gaps in his mouth, subjected some of his slaves to the whip, and went to great lengths to capture a female slave that had escaped from Mount Vernon. “The past,” Philbrick writes, “is not a pretty place.” But Philbrick avoids the temptation to judge the past solely by the present.
Philbrick’s journey took him to Philadelphia, where, he notes, Washington had been greeted by the mayor, councilmen, judges of the state’s Supreme Court, and other dignitaries. At Trenton, New Jersey, Washington was greeted by women in one of the few states that allowed them to vote. At each stop on their historical journey, Philbrick and his wife sought out taverns, or the sites of former taverns, where Washington stayed during his travels.
The author visited the Federal Hall Museum at the corner of Broad and Wall Streets in New York, where Washington first took the oath of office (the actual building was demolished in 1812). Philbrick watched a reenactment of the First Inauguration, and notes that Washington’s actual performance in 1789, according to one eyewitness, left much to be desired. During his speech, Washington reportedly trembled. Philbrick attributes that to Washington’s concern about “what lay ahead, both for himself and his country.”
Washington, as the author notes, would have been happy to retire to Mount Vernon and oversee his estate. He ran for president out of a sense of duty. Washington sensed that his leadership was necessary to hold the country together, and that was also the main reason for his early travels.
Ironically, although a son of Virginia, Washington had more in common politically with New England and the Middle Atlantic states than with the South—home to many Anti-Federalists who distrusted centralized power. Washington’s most important and influential adviser was his Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton who envisioned America as a mighty commercial empire, while the Cabinet member that caused Washington the most trouble was Secretary of State and fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson.
Washington’s tour of the Southern states—Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia—was designed to encourage support for the new federal government. And his reception in places like Wilmington, Savannah, Columbia, and Charleston was quite favorable. Philbrick notes that Washington had the star-power of a modern-day celebrity, and he used it to good effect.
But back in the nation’s capital, Jefferson and his ally James Madison secretly undermined the president’s policies as the political divide in the country widened. It got so bad that Washington did not want to run for a second term, but once again his sense of duty to the country prevailed. “[H]is only interest,” writes Philbrick, “was in establishing a federal government that was strong enough to survive without him.” But the partisan divide grew ever wider.
Philbrick notes that when Washington finished his second term he left the nation four great legacies: his Farewell Address, the beginnings of the nation’s new capital city near the Potomac River, freeing his slaves after his death, and his commitment to preserving the Union. Philbrick concludes that Washington, though “imperfect and contradictory,” should be remembered as a “great leader.” Just so.