Soon after his inauguration as America’s first president in 1789, George Washington announced his decision to visit every state in the union.
At the time, the term “United States” was a plural noun, and the recently ratified Constitution was, as one pundit put it, “a roof without walls.” Washington’s goal was to make himself the face of the new national government throughout a countryside where “We the People of the United States” was more a rhetorical hope than a political reality.
Between 1789 and 1791, he made four separate tours: to New England; Long Island; Rhode Island, which he had previously bypassed because it had not yet ratified the Constitution; and finally all the Southern states, by far the longest and most exhaustive tour, stretching almost 2,000 miles.
In “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy,” his 13th book, Nathaniel Philbrick brings his proven gift as a narrator to this on-the-road part of Washington’s life. Biographers of Washington have customarily devoted a chapter to this story. And several historians, most recently T.H. Breen in “George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation,” have written whole books on the subject. The central theme throughout this body of scholarship is Washington’s attempt to deploy his prestige as “the man who unites all hearts” in an America where allegiances remained local or state-based.
While “Travels With George” echoes that theme, it is a different kind of book, based on Philbrick’s decision to follow Washington’s trail, bringing his wife, Melissa, and his lovable if feisty dog, Dora, along on the trip. His model, so he tells us, is John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” and he embraces Steinbeck’s conceit that “we do not take a trip; the trip takes us.” As a result, there are places in the book where we lose sight of Washington altogether, as the focus shifts from America then to America now, and from Washington to Philbrick, his roving family and the America he sees. In these pages, “Travels With George” almost becomes a memoir.
Philbrick’s reporting is cogent and impressively detailed as long as Washington remains the central character. We get Washington the monument more than the man because that was the role he played at every stop.
As his entourage approached most cities and towns, he left his carriage, mounted Prescott — his white charger, whose hoofs were painted and polished — then rode into town wearing his military uniform, nodding right and left to cheering crowds. At the receptions in his honor in the Southern states, the leading ladies, fluttering behind their fans, gathered around him, all eager to chat with the iconic American. Slavery was never mentioned.
The crowds were smaller at Annapolis, though the same picture of America’s singular figure on parade applied. Philbrick uses the occasion to flash back to the Maryland capital in 1783, when Washington made the most famous and consequential exit in American history, surrendering his commission, then riding off to retirement at Mount Vernon. Unlike Caesar and Cromwell before him, and Napoleon, Stalin and Mao after, Washington set a republican precedent for the United States: No matter how indispensable, all leaders were disposable.
Philbrick uses Washington’s uneventful appearance in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to flash forward and tell the Ona Judge story. Portsmouth was the place where Judge, an enslaved woman at Mount Vernon and Martha Washington’s personal servant, eventually settled after escaping in 1796. Washington hired several operatives to find her and refused her request to be freed upon his death. She then rejected his order to return to Mount Vernon. If you are looking for a story that exposes the dark side of Washington’s struggle with slavery, the Ona Judge episode would be it. Philbrick shrewdly folds it into his narrative.
He takes his responsibilities as a historian of Washington’s world more seriously than his role as a journalist of ours. With a few exceptions, most of the people he interviews are tour guides, reenactors and local historians, who help him paint his picture of 18th-century America. In the end, he concludes that Steinbeck’s verdict in the 1950s remains true today — that despite our regional and cultural differences, we are “all what Washington had been striving to create: Americans.” Well, perhaps, but we are deeply divided over what the term means.
Philbrick’s pursuit of Washington’s odyssey occurred between 2017 and 2019, when the sitting president was the antithesis of everything Washington embodied: dedicated to dividing rather than uniting Americans, dictatorial in his ambitions, oblivious of his responsibilities to anything larger than himself. A sizable number of citizens in the Southern states where Philbrick traveled were ardent believers in Donald Trump’s agenda, but they don’t make it into Philbrick’s narrative.
There was a dramatic story to be told, contrasting the two presidents, and addressing the residual racism that endures in the wake of Washington’s personal minuet with slavery, our original sin. Philbrick either missed it or chose not to tell it, though multiple asides make it clear that he is fully aware of our ongoing struggle with racial equality. When he gets around to writing a full-fledged memoir, this is a chapter I look forward to reading.