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Travels with George

Book Review: Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

I've read countless books about George Washington, but this one is different. The author is a well-read historian, with a passion for the sea, and for travel. Indeed, his book is about Washington's various trips around our infant republic, while he was president.

The author uses John Steinbeck's "Travels With Charlie" as something of a guidepost. Following in Washington's footsteps, his account (like Steinbeck's) is highly personal, humorous, and vastly entertaining. If you like history spiced with humor, this book is for you

As our nation's first president, George Washington took a number of trips, of which little has been written. The first was his 250-mile journey, from his home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, to New York City, to take office as president. The second was a month-long tour of New England. The third was a tour of Long Island; the fourth was a boat trip to Rhode Island; the fifth and longest, was a tour of the southern states.

As the author was to discover, many of the social problems Washington encountered, such as slavery and distrust of the federal government, have ramifications to this day. However, what Washington achieved was to unify the nation behind the new federal government, and he did this by speaking with people everywhere he went, from New England farmers and shopkeepers, to Southern plantation owners and innkeepers. It was retail politics at its best, one man unifying politics behind a single idea–representative government.

By way of a visit to Mount Vernon, the author discusses Washington's ownership of slaves. Particularly of how his view of the "peculiar institution" changed over the years. Washington was, in some ways, the cruelest of slave masters. But with time, his attitude changed dramatically, particularly during the Revolutionary War, when he spent most of his time in the North, and saw African American slaves in an entirely new light. Indeed, as free men they made excellent soldiers, as capable as anyone. At the close of the war, with slavery becoming an increasingly divisive issue, Washington decided if civil war should come, he would leave his native Virginia and side with the North. In his later years, Washington put it in his will to have his slaves freed upon his death, something no other slaveholding founding father, however enlightened, dared to do.

No matter which part of the country Washington was in, slavery played a role. In New England, where the textile industry was king, and factory workers were paid a salary, the mills were fed by cotton grown in the slave-holding southern states.

While in Newport, Rhode Island, Washington met Moses Seixas, a member of Newport's Jewish congregation. It was a meeting that revealed just how far Washington's views of liberty had advanced, since his days as an entitled Virginia Grandee. Seixas was among a group of Jews whose fore-bearers had been driven out of Spain in 1658, crossed the Atlantic, and found a religious haven in the American colonies. Seixes wanted to know if he and his Jewish brethren were guaranteed religious freedom in the new republic. Washington's written response is among his greatest state papers, and a primer on what it means to be an American. In short, Washington stated that in a country based on the principle that everyone is created equal, mere tolerance of others is not enough; we must honor their innate right to freedom. Writes the author: "It is a message that is as important today as it was in August 1790. . . ."


Another poignant moment, was while the author was in Savanah, Georgia, touring that city's historic district. The tour began at the monument to Tomo-Chi-Chi, chief of the Yamacraw Indians, the region's original inhabitants. The tour wound through Savannah's back alleys, passed by several market squares, where slaves were once auctioned off, and concluded at tree-lined Johnson Square, where historic Christ Church is located. Washington attended a Sunday service at this Church on the morning he left Savannah. Seated on a park bench beside tour director Vaugnette Goode-Walker, who pointed out, "This was one of the largest slave yards in America, and it all happened in front of a church." Writes the author: "We could hear the service going on inside." "Today, most of Savannah is Black," continued the tour director, "but not up in the historic district." She looked at her watch, and said ruefully. "Eleven o'clock Sunday morning. The most segregated hour in America."

Most of Washington's journey to the south was near the coast, over mostly unfinished roads, with stops in New Bern, Charleston, and his farthest destination, Savannah. However, his journey home was through the south's undeveloped interior, over little more than Indian paths–with stops in Augusta, Columbia, Camden, Salem, Salisbury, Fredericksburg (Washington's birthplace), and the nation's new capital, then known as Washington City, on to Baltimore, and his final destination, the then-current capital in Philadelphia.

The author saw a number of civil war monuments along the way, many of which of which had been recently removed, such as in Richmond, where only the pedestals remained, where once had stood monuments to Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

While in Washington, D.C., the author visited the new National Museum of African American History and Culture "burnished and glinting in the afternoon sun." Getting in was a huge problem, as the line was quite long. Indeed, the author was informed that the museum was by far the most popular in Washington, D.C., attracting between three thousand and five thousand visitors a day. (The author and his wife were able to get in when a stranger offered them two tickets.)

The author recently told a major newspaper, that he was surprised at how timely his book had become. "This was going to be a road trip but led into issues that feel so current today. It's the first principle of any journey. As Steinbeck says, you don't control a journey, a journey controls you."

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