Review by David Starkey
Nathaniel Philbrick’s greatest successes as an author have come revisiting America’s Revolutionary War-period, where he has explored events like Bunker Hill, Washington’s victory at Yorktown, and the betrayal of Benedict Arnold solely as a historian. In Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Philbrick splits his time between history and travel writing with satisfying results.
Philbrick’s itinerary mirrors Washington’s travels in America during (and just before) his presidency. The preinaugural tour went from Mount Vernon to New York in April 1789. In October and November of that year, the new president traveled through New England. The following April, he made a circuit of Long Island, and in March through July of 1791, Washington traveled from the country’s temporary capitol in Philadelphia to Savannah, Georgia, then back home through the upcountry of the Carolinas.
All future presidents would only be able to dream of Washington’s vast popularity as he met with cheering crowds and near-endless rounds of speeches and parties in his honor at each stopping place. Again and again, Washington is described by those who met him as tall with a dignified if not regal bearing. Granted, some citizens grumbled about the president’s tax on whiskey and his plans to turn the swampland on the Potomac into a national capitol, but our first president clearly loomed as large in the imaginations of his contemporaries as he does in our own.
Celebrating democracy in America, especially the South, while traveling during the Trump era is certainly a balancing act for the author, and he’s able to swing it by mostly avoiding any mention of the 45th president. Like John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, Philbrick brings his dog (Dora), but he also takes along his wife, Melissa. Both are vividly drawn characters, though the irrepressible Dora is perhaps slightly more so. And Philbrick makes no secret of the fact that he and his wife and dog reside in comfortable motels and hotels each night. (Steinbeck claimed, inaccurately, to have spent most of his nights on the road in a tiny travel trailer.)
Philbrick cuts back and forth from Washington’s journeys to his own trip multiple times during each chapter, which makes the reader feel both at home in the past—here is the rural highway Washington’s carriage rumbled along—and clearly outside it—the majority of the buildings the president stayed in or visited were long ago destroyed.
Part of Philbrick’s journey takes place in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the protests that ensued, so it’s not surprising that race is very much on Philbrick’s mind. It would, of course, have been impossible to ignore the deep irony that the founder of a “democratic” country not only placated his slave-holding constituents but was himself a slave holder, and Philbrick doesn’t shy away from noting the myriad hypocrisies of the early nation. Philbrick’s visit to Brown University, where he was a student, is rightly overwhelmed by Brown’s Slavery & Justice Report, which deeply implicated the University’s founders—and, indeed, much of Rhode Island—in the slave trade.
Granted, this is not a book about Washington and slavery, but the topic recurs often enough that Philbrick probably risked losing a good chunk of the audience for what is otherwise an affable work of popular history. One of the most poignant moments occurs when Philbrick pauses near the ruins of Mulberry Grove plantation in Georgia, where Eli Whitney perfected the cotton gin. Philbrick is “tempted” to imagine a monster emerging from the woods, but then he reconsiders: “A monster is singular and slayable. What haunts America is more pervasive, more stubborn, and often invisible. It is the legacy of slavery, and it is everywhere.”
The book’s epilogue, written just days before the 2020 presidential election is even more grim: “A catastrophe of some sort is always just around the corner. And yet things feel different this time. The sinews of this country have been stretched to what feels like the breaking point.” Those words may yet prove as prophetic as anything the Founding Fathers ever wrote.