“Travels with George . . . is quintessential Philbrick—a lively, courageous, and masterful achievement.” —The Boston Globe
Does George Washington still matter? Bestselling author Nathaniel Philbrick argues for Washington’s unique contribution to the forging of America by retracing his journey as a new president through all thirteen former colonies, which were now an unsure nation. Travels with George marks a new first-person voice for Philbrick, weaving history and personal reflection into a single narrative.
When George Washington became president in 1789, the United States of America was still a loose and quarrelsome confederation and a tentative political experiment. Washington undertook a tour of the ex-colonies to talk to ordinary citizens about his new government, and to imbue in them the idea of being one thing—Americans.
In the fall of 2018, Nathaniel Philbrick embarked on his own journey into what Washington called “the infant woody country” to see for himself what America had become in the 229 years since. Writing in a thoughtful first person about his own adventures with his wife, Melissa, and their dog, Dora, Philbrick follows Washington’s presidential excursions: from Mount Vernon to the new capital in New York; a monthlong tour of Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island; a venture onto Long Island and eventually across Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. The narrative moves smoothly between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries as we see the country through both Washington’s and Philbrick’s eyes.
Written at a moment when America’s founding figures are under increasing scrutiny, Travels with George grapples bluntly and honestly with Washington’s legacy as a man of the people, a reluctant president, and a plantation owner who held people in slavery. At historic houses and landmarks, Philbrick reports on the reinterpretations at work as he meets reenactors, tour guides, and other keepers of history’s flame. He paints a picture of eighteenth-century America as divided and fraught as it is today, and he comes to understand how Washington compelled, enticed, stood up to, and listened to the many different people he met along the way—and how his all-consuming belief in the union helped to forge a nation.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:June 11, 1956
Place of Birth:Boston, Massachusetts
Education:B.A., Brown University, 1978; M.A., Duke University
Read an Excerpt
It's a maxim among travel writers that you've got to go solo-that a companion diverts you from the object at hand, that loneliness is essential to opening yourself to the experience of the road. In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck insisted that "two or more people disturb the ecologic complex of an area. I had to go alone." Except, of course, he wasn't alone; there was his French standard poodle, Charley. "A dog, particularly an exotic like Charley," Steinbeck wrote, "is a bond between strangers. Many conversations . . . began with 'What degree of a dog is that?'" Steinbeck also insisted that he must camp along the way, sleeping in Spartan quarters in the back of his pickup truck. "I had to be self-contained," he wrote, "a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back."
But as has since been revealed, Steinbeck was hardly the stickler for solitude he pretended to be. Despite his claims, he routinely traveled with his wife, Elaine. Rather than campgrounds, they stayed at hotels, some of them so swanky that a jacket was required at dinner. Instead of being appalled by these revelations, I was relieved. Because I didn't want to go it alone. After spending the majority of the last two decades holed up in my office, I had no interest in wandering the country aching with loneliness. I wanted my wife to come along with me. A former attorney, Melissa was about to retire from her second career as the executive director of a local nonprofit. For ten years she had been at the center of the debate about how an island with a storied past should face the future. And now she was going to walk away from it all. Part of me worried that without her busy professional life we'd have less to talk about. The other part of me was downright gleeful that for the first time in thirty-five years she would be free from the demands of a full-time job. It was time we took advantage of her newfound liberty and hit the road. And like John Steinbeck, we were going to bring our dog.
A few months earlier we'd acquired a puppy named Dora (for the first wife of David Copperfield-the Dickens character, not the magician), who, like Steinbeck's Charley, was something of an "exotic": a red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever, or toller for short. Unlike Steinbeck's Charley, who'd been a sedate ten years old, Dora was so rambunctious and freewheeling that we'd attached a GPS tracker to her collar. Whether or not Dora was going to be helpful in striking up a conversation with a stranger, she was guaranteed to make the trip a lot livelier.
Melissa and I took out a map of the Eastern Seaboard and began to plot our prospective trip. Washington's travels could be divided into five different legs: his trip from Mount Vernon to his inauguration in New York; his monthlong tour of New England; a four-day tour of the western end of Long Island; a sail from New York to Newport and Providence once Rhode Island ratified the Constitution; and a three-month tour of the South soon after the nation's temporary capital moved to Philadelphia.
We had some constraints to consider. We needed to stay in touch with our children and grandchildren, all in Brooklyn, as well as our two fathers, both in their nineties and both living independently on Cape Cod. The longest we could be away at a time, we decided, was two to three weeks, requiring us to divide each of the two longest journeys-New England and the South-in half. We also resolved that our two southern trips should be early enough in the spring to avoid the heat of summer.
We were following Washington, but I also wanted to find out as much as possible about the people he visited. Did he leave an impression? What traces-besides historical plaques and the seemingly omnipresent claim that "Washington slept here"-were left of his journey? I made a list of all the towns he'd visited and reached out to as many of their public libraries and historical societies as I could track down. In almost every instance, the librarians and archivists were eager to share what information they had, sending me pages from local histories, journals, diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings. In a surprising number of instances they even offered to show us around their towns, eventually climbing into our Honda Pilot and pointing out the houses Washington slept or ate in, the trees he tied his horse to, or in one instance the spot where he helped raise a rafter of the town's one-room school.
Even before we took to the road, a wholly different Washington began to emerge-not the general or the president or the plantation owner, but the human being, the traveler. And best and most revealing of all were the accounts left by the ordinary people-an eight-year-old girl on Long Island, a middle-aged lawyer from Virginia-who had seen the president from the side of the road.
Washington and Steinbeck were not my only sources of inspiration for this journey. There was also the example of Harry and Bess Truman, who set out on a road trip of their own shortly after the conclusion of TrumanÕs second term as president. Without any sort of fanfare (let alone a security detail), they drove their black Chrysler from Independence, Missouri, to New York City and back over the course of three leisurely weeks. They ate at diners, slept in motels, signed the occasional autograph, and had a terrific time. If they could do it, so could Melissa and I.
But this wasn't going to be the same kind of carefree ramble enjoyed by Harry and Bess in the 1950s. We were, after all, following the travels of a slaveholder at a time when Confederate monuments were being removed across the South. The country's political divide seemed to be widening by the day. And yet I didn't want this trip to be about what separates us. I wanted to find out how Washington attempted to bind us together into a lasting union of states. Acknowledging and even delving into his weaknesses and failings, especially when it came to slavery, I wanted to know what Washington got right-what tools he and his generation had left us to begin to build a better nation.
Little did I know that in the months after our return from our travels, the country would be gripped by two extraordinary events: first, a global pandemic that made the freedom of movement we had once taken for granted impossible, quickly followed by a demand for social justice that inspired protests across the country and the world. Suddenly the original sin of slavery was no longer at the periphery of the conversation; it was the conversation. Even more than had been true before, the merits of the founding fathers were being questioned, which is all for the good. But questioning should never lead to forgetting.
Even in his own time, George Washington courted more controversy than most Americans know about today, or are taught in their American history survey courses. His belief in a strong federal government and his endorsement of the fiscal policies promulgated by his financial secretary, Alexander Hamilton, ultimately inspired a backlash led by his own secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, abetted by his fellow Virginian James Madison, who wanted the states to retain more authority and power. Partisanship had been born, and by the end of his second term Washington was deeply embittered by the political divisions that threatened to destroy the country. And yet, because of what he'd accomplished during the first years of his presidency-both in the executive mansion and on the road-he'd established a government that was built to last.
Steinbeck wrote, "We do not take a trip; a trip takes us. . . . The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it." Every day on the road with George proved the truth of this claim. Just when we thought he was leading us on a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure through the Middle Atlantic and New England states, we arrived in Newport, Rhode Island, the seat of the American slave trade. From that point on, as we made our way south to the Confederate monuments in Richmond, to the Rice Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina, and to the scene of a slave auction in Savannah, our journey proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined. After one terrifying episode on our way to Newport, we are lucky to be alive.
Today, as I write this, I can't help but wonder whether our country will survive the next unexpected turn of events. More than ever before, Americans need to know what our first president did, at the very beginning, to bring this nation together.
Travel was essential to George Washington. As a surveyor in his teens and as a British provincial officer in his twenties he had ventured all over the American colonies-traveling as far west as the Ohio River and as far north as the Great Lakes. During his eight years as commander of the Continental army he had crisscrossed the country countless times, ultimately claiming victory with a five-hundred-mile march from New York to Yorktown. Even during Washington's supposed retirement to Mount Vernon after the war, he remained on the move, spending as many as six hours a day on horseback inspecting his sprawling plantation. Washington liked nothing more than to be out there and seeing the world.
There was one journey, however, he did not want to make. At about 10:00 a.m. on April 16, 1789, he walked out of the house he loved more than any place in the world and stepped into a carriage bound for New York City and the presidency of the United States. "I bade adieu," he wrote in his diary, "to Mount Vernon, to private life, and to domestic felicity; and with a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express."
Instead of the culmination of a life in public service, the presidency seemed, to Washington, a kind of death sentence. He felt, he confessed to Henry Knox, his future secretary of war, like "a culprit who is going to the place of his execution." He had given up, he told Edward Rutledge of South Carolina, "all expectations of private happiness in this world."
He didn't have, he insisted, "that competency of political skill" the job required. Yes, he had worked miracles during the Revolution, but those achievements only created expectations that no man could live up to. "My countrymen will expect too much from me," he wrote to Rutledge. "I fear, if the issue of public measures should not correspond with their sanguine expectations, they will turn the extravagant (and I may say undue) praises . . . into equally extravagant . . . censures. So much is expected, so many untoward circumstances may intervene, in such a new and critical situation, that I feel an insuperable diffidence in my own abilities."
The Constitution had established an electoral college of sixty-nine electors, the number based on the states' representation in Congress, with each elector given two votes. In five of the states the electors had been chosen by the states' legislatures, while six states had employed a form of popular vote. Instead of a single day, the election was conducted over the course of several weeks, with each state's electors meeting at that state's capital; it then took another two months to count the votes in what was the first such popular election of a national leader in the world.
Everyone assumed Washington, a Federalist, would be elected president; the question was who would become his vice president-elected separately and not as part of a ticket. As it turned out, all sixty-nine electors voted for Washington, while Washington's fellow Federalist John Adams topped the seven-man field for vice president with thirty-four votes. Thanks to Washington's enormous nationwide popularity, America's first presidential election had been a victory for the supporters of the Constitution. And yet, as Washington knew full well, it was only a matter of time before the passions unleashed between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists during ratification erupted once again.
For now Washington just wanted to get the 250-mile journey to New York over with as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the American people, who had already begun to make plans for his reception along the way, had other ideas.
You may not believe it, but George Washington is bigger than Elvis-at least he was in 2014. In that year, Graceland attracted a whopping 600,000 visitors, while a million people visited Mount Vernon. And thatÕs not counting the dogs, because, IÕm happy to report, the grounds of Mount Vernon are dog friendly.
On an afternoon in the late summer of 2018, Melissa, Dora, and I were standing on the grass next to Washington's famous home. The rains associated with Hurricane Florence were predicted to arrive the next day, and the air was hot and sticky. Dora, being a furry red Canadian, was not enjoying herself. She could see the Potomac at the bottom of the hill and wanted desperately to go for a cooling swim. Under normal circumstances I would have been happy to oblige, but I was pretty sure they were serious about the "No Swimming" sign down at the river's edge. Dora would just have to tough it out.
A word about Dora, the duck-tolling retriever. The term "tolling" comes from the Middle English word tollen, meaning to attract or entice; church bells toll to lure parishioners. Since time immemorial foxes have been known to attract ducks by cavorting on the water's edge, even rolling onto their backs, with their bushy, white-tipped tail in the air. A curious duck swims to the shore, and the fox pounces on its prey. Nova Scotia's original inhabitants, the Micmacs, might have been the first to train their dogs to imitate this behavior. But it was the French, who settled in what they called Acadia in the early seventeenth century, who made the first recorded reference to the decidedly fox-like little dog that would become the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever. In the 1660s, Nicolas Denys told of how after luring the ducks to the shore for the hunter to kill, "the dog leaps to the water, and . . . is sent to fetch them all one after another."
That's the last anyone heard of the toller for more than two centuries, partly because the dogs and their masters were forced into hiding in 1751, when the conquering British did their best to purge the region of its French inhabitants. More than six thousand Acadians were rounded up and deported to places as far away as Louisiana (where the name Acadian became shortened to "Cajun"). There were some Acadians, however, who refused to leave. Rather than resist, they simply melted into the scarcely inhabited interior. Eventually, once a new group of English-speaking settlers had established their own communities on what was now called Nova Scotia (Latin for New Scotland), the British government lost interest in enforcing the expulsion. Acadians started trickling back to their homeland, where they rejoined the hardy few (and their dogs) who had survived decades in the backcountry. By the early twentieth century, the toller had begun to reemerge from the mists of time. There is a 1928 photograph of a dog named Gunner that is a dead ringer for Dora: the same high-alert expression, narrow snout, floppy yet expressive ears, tiny feet, and white markings on the face, the chest, and the tip of that big, bushy tail. But back to our story.
Table of Contents
Preface: The Chariot xi
Part I Inauguration
Chapter 1 Loomings 3
Chapter 2 Mount Vernon 9
Chapter 3 "Wreaths and Chaplets of Flowers" 21
Chapter 4 New York 39
Part II New England
Chapter 5 Dreaming of George Washington 59
Chapter 6 "Only a Man" 75
Chapter 7 Turf Wars 89
Chapter 8 "A Child of God" 107
Chapter 9 The Middle Road Home 119
Part III Into the Storm
Chapter 10 The Spies of Long Island 129
Chapter 11 Newport 143
Chapter 12 Providence 161
Part IV South
Chapter 13 Terra Incognita 177
Chapter 14 The Fellowship of the Past 193
Chapter 15 "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" 215
Chapter 16 "Eleven O'Clock Sunday Morning" 235
Chapter 17 "A Cat May Look on a King" 253
Chapter 18 Muddy Freshets 271
Chapter 19 "The Devil's Own Roads" 289
Epilogue: The View from the Mountain 309
Illustration Credits 359