Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy

  • By Nathaniel Philbrick
  • Viking
  • 400 pp.
  • Reviewed by Elizabeth J. Moore
  • October 27, 2021

Authorial intrusions mar this otherwise rollicking history.

If the founding of our country was written in the stars, the election of George Washington as our first president in 1789 can be entered as evidence. Few would have been up to the task of forging 13 fractious colonies into an actual United States; to the everlasting benefit of this country, Washington had the courage, skill, and humility to make it a success.

The multiple journeys Washington made in the service of such nation-building form the core of Nathaniel Philbrick’s latest book, Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy. In 2018-2019, Philbrick — and his wife and dog, about whom much will be heard — retraced Washington’s five journeys between 1789 and 1791 to bring his constituents into the American fold. The story itself is compelling and insightful — Washington retains his ability to fascinate even in our age — although Philbrick’s constant interjection of irrelevant details gets old fast.

The story begins with “Washington [hoping] to use the power of his immense popularity to foster a sense of unity and national pride that had not previously existed.” In addition to his trip from Mount Vernon to New York City for his inauguration in the spring of 1789, Washington would ultimately make four other tours: from New York City (then the seat of the U.S. government) to New England (minus Rhode Island, which had not yet ratified the Constitution); across Long Island (likely to thank the members of the Culper spy ring, who provided crucial intelligence during the war); Rhode Island (after it ratified the Constitution); and the southern states.

The old saw “the past is a foreign country” is apt here. In our own era — when presidents are shielded from any sort of physical peril or discomfort — it stretches the imagination to think of George Washington freely associating with the citizenry, lodging in seedy taverns, and riding in open carriages or on horseback. His near-death experiences along the way — carriage wrecks, virulent disease, storms on open water, ferry accidents — seem to have been taken in stride.

But there are also uncanny similarities to our time. Americans post-1776 were disoriented by the disappearance of old values that had once guided their lives, and divides over the role and power of government (Federalists versus anti-Federalists) were just as virulent back then. The one unifier was widespread agreement that George Washington should lead the country, and he was welcomed almost everywhere he went. And “with each ride into a different town, each address, each toast, and each night in another tavern, he was shoring up the country for the long haul ahead.”

Along the way, Philbrick reveals some “who knew?” aspects of U.S. history: that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked tirelessly to undermine Washington and his policies; that Washington so dreaded becoming president that he almost fainted at his first inauguration; that Rhode Island was as intricately connected with slavery as any part of the South; and that far from just giving his name to Washington, DC, Washington took an active (and borderline unseemly) role in determining its location, layout, and architectural style.

Philbrick also touches on the vexed subject of Washington and slavery, although not conclusively. On one hand, he calls slavery “the cold pocket of horror within George Washington,” citing Washington’s pursuit of a runaway slave belonging to his wife’s family. He also relates a number of occasions when Washington could have taken a stand against slavery but did not.

On the other hand, the author indicates that Washington struggled with the moral issue of slavery and ensured that his own slaves were freed upon his death — and that “for someone who had become a slaveholder at age eleven, this was a remarkable evolution in thinking.”

Sadly, not all of the book informs. Philbrick (heretofore a serious historian with a number of books and prizes to his name) weakens his work with some highly dubious choices. The first is his unfathomable decision to repeatedly cite John Steinbeck’s fabulist Travels with Charley as inspiration for his own travels (because, apparently, physically retracing Washington’s footsteps was insufficiently interesting).

Then there’s Philbrick’s constant disruption of the narrative with endless, eye-rolling paragraphs about his family: his wife’s fear of snakes, his grandchildren in Brooklyn, and his aunt’s bookmobile, to name a few. This is to say nothing of the gratuitous pages devoted to the dog.

Philbrick also uses irrelevant encounters with total strangers to puff up his story — as evidenced by such passages as “when Miguel stooped down to talk to his elderly neighbor on the park bench beside us, it was with the same indulgent serenity I associated with Washington’s relationship with Martha.” But most cringe-worthy is Philbrick’s riff on watching “The Wizard of Oz,” then speculating that the Munchkins’ greeting of Dorothy is akin to Washington being received by local officials.

Thankfully, George Washington rises above such careless treatment. The reader who endures to the end will have a sense of someone who truly lived up to the publicity: pragmatic, unafraid of hard work, and so levelheaded that — despite the efforts of others to style him a king or dictator — all he wanted post-presidency was to go home to Mount Vernon and resume farming. This is a cracking good story in its own right and deserved to be told without gratuitous embellishments.

Elizabeth J. Moore is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area. She was a longtime senior analyst and instructor who worked in the Defense, State, and Treasury departments, on the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s President’s Daily Brief Staff, and at the National Security Council, the National Intelligence Council, and the Central Intelligence Agency. She holds a master’s degree in international politics from American University.

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