Book Review: ‘Travels With George’ by Nathaniel Philbrick

“Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy” is Nathaniel Philbrick’s 13th book.

Another book on George Washington? Award-wining writer Nathaniel Philbrick, author of two earlier works on the nation’s first president, could not be more on the mark with his new one, an informative, highly readable, personal and scholarly exploration with both historical and contemporary significance.

“Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy,” Philbrick’s 13th book, integrates history, memoir and travelogue as the author, his wife Melissa and Dora, a people-attracting Nova Scotia red duck-tolling retriever, follow in Washington’s footsteps and stop at the places (or remainders thereof) the president slept and ate in on a remarkable tour he made a few months after his inauguration in 1789, starting from the then-nation’s capital, New York. Philbrick’s own tour goes from 2018 to September 2020. Hard to believe, as he says, that George is bigger than Elvis, at least he was in 2014 when Graceland attracted 600,000 visitors, but Mount Vernon got a million.

As Philbrick persuasively shows, Washington’s tour, an exhausting but highly successful meet-and-greet, united the states (if only for a while) at a time of perilous partisan divide, not unlike our own. George was 57 at the time, not in great health, and the “grueling” tour to remote towns and crowded cities was on land, over horrendous roads and often filthy, rundown inns, not the usual way of getting from Maine to Georgia, which was to sail. But he did it, leaving his beloved Mount Vernon, sensing, as “probably the most famous person in the world,” the need to meet ordinary citizens and exploit his popularity at a dangerous time of Hamiltonian Federalist and Jeffersonian anti-Federalist discord over budget proposals and the growing inexorable clash over slavery and the slave trade. Philbrick reminds readers that the United States Constitution, the work of educated elites, themselves not united, hardly passed overwhelmingly.

What sets “Travels With George” apart, however, is not just the narrative juncture of past and present (the present a bit over the top at times), with some engaging home photos, but the nuanced portrait Philbrick provides of our first president, who emerges here, as in other biographical reassessments, as a complicated moral and political figure, aristocratic and humble, a man of liberty who, though he freed his slaves on his death, did own hundreds, including some who came on his tour with him; a determined but hesitant leader, who was as calculating as he was insecure. A natural at public relations, he knew when to leave his carriage for his majestic white mount, Prescott, or when to wear ordinary clothes to appear before adoring crowds. He shrewdly excluded Rhode Island from his tour until this last of the colonies ratified the Constitution in August 1790.

Philbrick credits librarians, archivists, curators, docents and descendants of historical figures he meets along the way. A graduate of Brown and Duke and an expert sailor, he began his professional life as a maritime historian. He has a special love for Nantucket, but unapologetically, indicts the North, especially Newport, for its involvement in the slave trade.

Taking a cue from John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charlie,” Philbrick recounts Washington’s tour in four parts: Inauguration (April 16-24, 1789); New England (October-November 1789); Into the Storm (Long Island, April 20-24, 1790), when Washington quietly thanked the spies “who had made it possible to win the Revolutionary War,” and Rhode Island; and finally The South, the most extensive and challenging part of the tour (March-July 1791).

The Confederacy, Philbrick reminds us, was founded in Richmond, Va. in 1861, on Washington’s birthday. Along the way, myths are put to bed. Notwithstanding current curricular attacks from both the radical left and right, this is exactly the kind of book that should be in classrooms. In his preface Philbrick writes that he’s always been “compelled to explore what happens to people in the worst of times, especially when it comes to issues of leadership.”

What he shows of the power of slavery to divide the nation corrects the footnote the “peculiar institution” still receives in many textbooks, even in so-called progressive schools. The country was deeply divided in the late 18th century. It is in deeply divided now, “fraught and contentious,” the legacy of slavery more “pervasive” and “stubborn” than ever, often “invisible,” but “everywhere.” “If our country is ever going to improve … we need to look the past full in the face today; and there, at the very beginning, is our first president: a slaveholder, a land baron, a general, and a politician, who believed with all his soul in the Union.”