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George Washington's Journey

June 2024
14min read

After becoming President, George Washington undertook an extraordinary journey through all thirteen colonies to unite – and learn from – a diverse population of citizens. His quest to unite our nation and discover the "temper and disposition" of its people are an inspiration to us today.

The claim that “Washington Slept Here” is so ubiquitous in the historical community that it has become something of a running joke. But plenty of evidence exists that our first president was indeed a frequent traveler -- often rushing over muddy, pot-holed roads in a great white coach two centuries before Air Force One. During the last year, American Heritage has been conducting a survey of Revolutionary War taverns to be published later in 2017, and we've already found 38 establishments that claim Washington stopped by, from Abbott Tavern in Andover, MA, to the William Pitt Tavern in Portsmouth, NH.

Reasons for the First President’s peregrinations have become much more clear with H.R. Breen’s new book, George Washington's Journey, excerpted here. 

--The Editors

Washington's Journey coverThroughout history, revolutions have usually ended badly. The course of these events is all too familiar. After success on the battlefield, a sense of solidarity born of dreams of liberation and reform gives way to disappointment and fragmentation. We do not usually think of the American Revolution in these terms. After all, our revolution did not end badly. The American people not only achieved independence, but also established a constitutional republic that has survived for more than two centuries.

We owe a lot to George Washington for this striking achievement. During his first term as president of the United States, he recognized the critical need to preserve the original goals of the Revolution. Fearful that the promise of national independence would slip away, he insisted on creating a powerful union capable of overcoming internal division. George Washington's Journey recounts how he devised a boldly original plan to promote a strong central government during a time of political peril.

We study Washington's journey today to recapture a sense of national purpose and unity that has gone missing from the ongoing conversation between our country's elected leaders and the American people. It is true, of course, that Washington's appeal for solidarity often fell on deaf ears. Unlike him, we know what the future held for the country after his presidency. Civil war almost destroyed the union he worked so hard to preserve. Local concerns have repeatedly trumped comprehension of the common good. Political parties have stimulated heated debate, which sometimes has led to the utter paralysis of the government. Whatever the threats to the nation have been, Washington's travels remind us, now more than ever before, of the enduring need for the American people to pull together to recover the original promise of the Revolution. For us, that is his message.

During his first days in office, Washington organized a journey that shaped how the American people perceived their relationship with the new federal government. Drawing on his immense popularity, Washing-ton envisioned an ambitious tour of the United States as a way to trans-form the abstract language of the Constitution into a powerful, highly personal argument for a strong union. At a key moment in our country's history when the very survival of the new system could not be taken for granted, he took to the road to discover what was on the minds of the American people and, more, share with them his own expansive vision for republican government in this country.

By reaching out to the people where they lived and worked, Washington invited ordinary men and women to imagine themselves not simply as victorious revolutionaries or as individuals who had managed briefly to establish a loose confederation of states, but, rather, as citizens of a powerful new republic. His decision sparked a far-reaching conversation about the future of the entire country that still echoes throughout the public forum. As he explained repeatedly, the success of the new nation was in the hands of the people. All they had to do, Washington declared, was to give their full support to the union for which they had fought.

Washington's political brilliance lay in sensing the need to persuade scattered Americans, most of whom identified with the separate states, to affirm their belief in a strong federal government. It was a difficult challenge, since when he began his tour of the United States, neither Washington nor the people he encountered were quite sure what it meant to be citizens of a very large republic. They found themselves engaged in an exciting, unprecedented experiment in self-rule. As we follow Washington's coach over thousands of miles of dirt roads, we are reminded of the words of Brissot de Warville, a Frenchman who visited the United States in 1788: "The object of these travels [is] to study men who had just acquired their liberty."'

The tour of the new republic began early in Washington's first term as president. Between 1789 and 1791, Washington organized several separate journeys, which carried him to all the original thirteen states. Although travel by coach was extremely difficult, he covered thousands of miles and on at least two occasions was involved in potentially fatal accidents.

The first trip took him from Mount Vernon to New York City for his inauguration as president. It covered the middle states—Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey—and while not planned specifically as a way to interact with the people or to gauge public opinion, the experience alerted him to how much the success of his presidency depended on making himself visible to ordinary Americans.

Later in 1789, Washington visited New England, then a region of the United States that, despite its celebrated Revolutionary heritage, harbored serious doubts about the power of the new federal government. He took a brief trip to Rhode Island in 1790, an action designed chiefly to solidify support in a state that had taken an embarrassingly long time to ratify the Constitution. The arduous journey to the South began in spring 1791. It lasted several months and left the daily business of government in the hands of cabinet members who were none too sure how to reach the president in case of emergency.

Washington's papers contain only terse explanations as to why he subjected himself to the hardship of travel. In a diary entry written in 1789, for example, he announced that his goal was "to acquire knowledge of the facts of the Country, the growth and Agriculture there of and the temper and disposition of the Inhabitants towards the new government."' This concise statement, typical of Washington's laconic correspondence, hardly communicated the broader significance of the remarkable enterprise. He wanted to obtain an accurate sense of public opinion, to free himself from the kinds of partisan, often uninformed conversations that echoed through the nation's capital. From a modern perspective, of course, we expect presidents to interact with the people wherever they happen to live.' Presidents are forever complaining about being trapped. They seek renewal through direct contact with the people. We should appreciate that it was Washington who initiated what we now regard as an essential element of political life.

Washington confronted an unusual political environment. For most Americans in 1789, the year he became president, the recently ratified Constitution remained essentially a statement of hope. It is doubtful that many of them had read its complex clauses. Certainly the creation of a new federal system had not directly touched their lives, and while they may have followed the contentious debates over ratification, they could not be said to have forged the emotional ties with the federal government that we might label as the effective bonds of nationalism or patriotism. Their political horizons remained intensely local, seldom in fact extending beyond the borders of their own states. By devising a practical way to bring the new government directly to the people, by performing the presidency in their own communities, Washington not only enhanced the legitimacy of the Constitution but also helped ordinary Americans comprehend that the United States was now more than the sum of its parts.

By taking government to the people, Washington enhanced the legitimacy of the recently ratified Constitution and taught our citizens the importance of a unified republic.

No other founding father could have taken on this task. Washington brought immense political capital to the presidency. He may have been the most charismatic person ever to hold the office. Everything about the man—his behavior, dress, and pronouncements, even his coach—became emblematic of the new constitutional order. In a profound symbolic sense, he was the nation. Whatever his standing as the hero of the Revolution, Washington had to discover how best to present himself persuasively to the public as the leader of a new republic.

Washington's insights into the performance of power resulted in a presidency that suited not only his own character — diffident and formal—but also the expectations of a people who had just successfully established this republic. It is important to remember that when it came to the presentation of the presidency, Washington could not control the interpretive conversation. The American people, women as well as men, had a major voice in authenticating his performance of executive leadership under the Constitution. The populist character of this conversation is important to remember, since most narratives of this period in our nation's history focus almost exclusively on a small group of familiar political and intellectual leaders — Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson—and in this account of clashing egos, the American people are often reduced to the role of mere spectators on the creation of their own republic. In fact, they engaged fully in a process of mutual discovery about the character of the new republic. If it had not been so, if the founding years had really involved only a small group of leaders, the nation would have been more unstable than it was in fact. It was Washington's genius to engage the people in a conversation about their shared future.

At the start of his journey, the president had no assurance of success. He operated in an uncertain political environment in which every decision lacked clear precedent. No one knew the rules. Indeterminacy put a heavy burden on Washington. Even mundane acts had the potential to become precedents, binding future generations or, worse, triggering destructive faction. In January 1790, in an unusually forthright letter to Catharine Macaulay Graham, the celebrated London author of History of England (1763-1783), Washington confessed, "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by creating a reasonable compact, in civil Society." With obvious trepidation, Washington accepted the responsibility. "Few," he noted, "who are not philosophical Spectators, can realize the difficult and delicate part which a man in my situation had to act." The president, who worried about the force of public opinion and strove so hard to translate the Constitution into a working national government, knew the dangers that awaited him. "In our progress toward political happiness my station is new," he told Graham, "and, if I may use the expression, I walk on untrodden ground."'

This reflective, often apprehensive Washington is not the figure with which most of us are familiar. Few historians of the Early Republic have associated him with bold innovation or daring risk. They usually depict him, especially during his first years as president, as a somewhat wooden individual—a person possessing admirable personal attributes but not one inspiring intimacy or even deep affection. He receives credit for recruiting gifted colleagues such as Hamilton and Jefferson into his cabinet and working productively with James Madison, who among other tasks was busy drafting the Bill of Rights.

In such brilliant company, Washington recedes into the background, becoming a kind of well-meaning avuncular character who did his best to keep dysfunctional cabinet members from fighting in public over complex fiscal issues. It was this genial Washington who later convinced Mason Locke Weems, otherwise known as Parson Weems, to reimagine Washington's entire life story. In his celebrated Life of Washington (1800), Weems, who was in fact no clergyman, tried to make his subject more exciting, more dynamic, even if that meant inventing whole-cloth tales of cutting down a cherry tree, kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge, and throwing a silver dollar across a wide river. More modern treatments of Washington distance themselves from pure fabrication, but honesty seems to make them a little grumpy, as if they wished that the real Washington had been closer to Weems's fiction than he was in fact.

Any attempt to transform Washington into a polished conversationalist able to speak knowledgeably at dinner parties about music, philosophy, or literature is a nonstarter. He was no Jefferson. Nevertheless, Washington's painful awkwardness in formal social situations—dinner guests often watched him play with the silverware or drum the table with his fingers —should not diminish our appreciation of his talents or accomplishments. He was a masterful politician who could size up a potential ally or adversary within minutes.

To comprehend fully Washington's contribution to American political culture, one has to follow his feet rather than his table talk. Early in January 1790, Gouverneur Morris, a trusted friend, expressed a view of political life with which Washington was in full agreement. "As it happens somewhat unfortunately that the Men who live in the World are very different from those that dwell in the Heads of Philosophers," explained Morris, "it is not to be wondered at if the Systems taken out of Books are fit for Nothing but to be put into Books again."' Or, as Washington himself declared in 1797, "With me it has always been a maxim, rather to let my designs appear from my works than by my expressions."' This was the voice of political realism, not anti-intellectualism. To appreciate his vision for the new nation as well as his innovative strategy for reaching out to the people, we too must follow his footsteps as much as his words.

During the mid-1780s, Washington was convinced that time was running out for the United States. As if he needed instruction on how to meet the challenge, the leaders of North Carolina who had dragged their feet on ratification of the Constitution reminded Washington of how hard it was to bring the critics and the doubters around to supporting the new government. In a letter sent to Washington in May 1789, the governor and council observed, "Your Excellency will consider (however others may forget) how extremely difficult it is to unite all the People of a great Country in one common sentiment upon almost any political subject, much less a new form of Government materially different from one they have been accustomed to." They were optimistic. After all, "We sincerely believe that America is the only country in the world where such a deliberate change of Government could take place under any circumstances whatever."'

In traveling thousands of miles on terrible dirt roads, Washington endured real physical hardships to communicate this vision of a strong federal union.

Washington hoped the North Carolinians were right. The preservation of a strong post-Revolutionary union would not be easy. It required constant vigilance. For him, federal unity became nearly an obsession. The Revolution for which he had fought depended on maintaining a sense of common purpose. Washington's uncompromising commitment to a strong union sometimes clouded his judgment. As he traveled the primitive roads of America, he remained blind to the corrosive effect that slavery would have on the nation. He did not want to hear about issues that threatened the union. And there is no question that his insistence on unity occasionally caused him to mistake candid criticism of government policy for disloyalty.

It was within this mental framework—one that stressed a shared sense of national purpose—that Washington organized his journeys to the people. He was prepared to sacrifice personal comfort to fulfill what he regarded as the original promise of the Revolution.

Reconstructing Washington's journeys led me to explore some of the less traveled highways of the eastern and southern states. I tried to see as best I could a lost world of the Early Republic from the perspective of a new president and the people he met on the tours. To be sure, I relied heavily on traditional sources. The president kept a diary in which he recorded the names of taverns where he spent his nights, how many miles he traveled on a certain day, or a particular community's commercial prospects. In addition, newspapers throughout the country followed his progress and often provided detailed accounts of the elaborate ceremonies that various cities such as Boston and Charleston staged in Washington's honor. For me, however, the most poignant link with Washington—getting to know the man and escaping with him from the formality of ordinary presidential affairs—owed a lot to ac-companying him from place to place. I drove the modern roads that more or less followed Washington's original path.

Traveling with him was a pleasant although demanding challenge. Everywhere I went, from New Hampshire to Georgia, I encountered extraordinary change, especially in the South, where more than two centuries of war, hurricanes, and insects had radically altered the physical landscape. Much of his experience could not be recaptured. But change affected the material face of history in other ways. It appeared not only in predictable forms associated with urban growth but also in the movement of the very buildings where he stayed. In several towns, the houses Washington mentioned in his diary had been relocated two, sometimes three, times, so that what appeared at first as the house or neighborhood as he would have encountered it turned out to be the product of decisions made many decades later.'

Still, retracing the journeys yielded unexpected insights, even if that merely meant gaining a clearer image of a late-eighteenth-century society. Enough physical evidence has survived from his first term in office to provide the modern traveler with a palpable sense of the physical hardships that Washington endured day after day on terrible dirt roads and nights in taverns that provided dubious food and uncomfortable beds. As a man who was convinced that he did not have many more years to live—he did not die until December 1799—Washington was willing to sacrifice personal comfort in an effort to communicate to the American people his vision of the promise of a strong federal union. Whatever else one might claim, the long trips to the nation were not for the faint of heart. Even today, the road speaks to the intensity of his commitment.

For me, one moment in Washington's travels stands out. He left Georgetown, South Carolina, on May 1, 1791, heading south toward Charleston, where he had reason to anticipate an especially enthusiastic welcome. Whatever the expectations, he could not escape the fact that the road between those two cities provided little to reduce the tedium of the trip. Moreover, the sandy soil added greatly to the stress on the horses, who were pulling Washington's Great White Coach, a vehicle we will encounter several times. He went for miles not even seeing a house, let alone a proper village. As Washington noted in his diary, all he encountered were "sand & pine barrens —with very few inhabitants."1°

Perhaps to break the monotony, Washington paid a visit to Hamp-ton, the manor house of a huge rice plantation long associated with two of the more powerful families in the state, the Horrys and the Pinckneys. Constructed in 1730, the building was located some miles off the main road, its isolation reflecting the owners' need for a huge amount of land. Indeed, rice plantations were sites for what we might call industrial agriculture. They relied on the labor of hundreds of slaves, people who spent their days knee deep in water in fields where the plants were cultivated." None of that seems to have concerned Washington as he drove up the long road leading to Hampton.

On the imposing front porch, three women greeted the president. One of them was Eliza Pinckney, who among other accomplishments had discovered a process to turn indigo into an important commercial crop for South Carolina. Next to her stood Harriott Horry, her daughter and the widow of a colonel who had fought during the Revolution. Harriott's daughter joined them. All the women wore special "sashes and bandeaux painted with the general's portrait and mottoes of welcome."

The group shared breakfast, and then, just before he set off for Charleston, Washington and Harriott Horry took a short walk through the grounds of Hampton. Perhaps to spark conversation, Harriott in-formed the president that she intended to cut down a large live oak tree, since in her estimation, it obstructed the view that visitors had of the house when they came up the driveway. The tree was probably then several centuries old. Washington reacted strongly, urging her to rethink the plan. According to family tradition, he explained, "Mrs. Horry, let it stay. It can do no harm where it is and I would not think of cutting it down."12 His intervention saved the tree.

More than two centuries later, I retraced Washington's route to Hampton from the main highway. It is only a few miles. Piney woods surround the connecting country road. I saw very few houses. For a spring day, it was unseasonably warm. Emergency crews were busy dealing with scattered hot spots that testified to a recent forest fire that had destroyed much of the underbrush. The driveway to the house, now a state historic site, would probably still annoy Harriott Horry. It winds through the trees. As she warned, I was not able fully to appreciate the beauty of Hampton until after I had walked a hundred yards or so from the parking lot. But for all that, nothing had dramatically changed since the morning of May 1, 1791. The State of South Carolina has wisely not attempted to restore the building to some imagined eighteenth-century grandeur. It has stabilized the structure and done what was necessary to protect it from further deterioration. And the Washington Oak still stands in front of the porch— a survivor, beautiful, healthy, and still competing with the mansion for attention, a living link to the president's journey to discover America.

George Washington's Journey makes no attempt to follow the president's progress in detail from town to town. Rather, the goal is to high-light broad interpretive themes that gave this long and difficult journey larger significance for the history of the United States. The president promoted a strong federal government in the name of national prosperity, military security, and territorial expansion. At every opportunity, he condemned those who aggressively defended state sovereignty. Washington called these figures demagogues, insisting that they stood in the way of national progress.

As we explore these themes, we will encounter many ordinary Americans who seldom find a voice in traditional histories of the period. The list of people Washington met includes female factory workers in New England, the spokesman for a struggling synagogue, a young girl who imagined what it would be like to have a woman as president of the United States, an inventor who constructed a strange mechanical boat that could propel itself against river currents, a young man who lost the power of speech when he first met the president, and an extraordinary slave who forced Washington to tell a lie. These men and women participated in the invention of a new political theater. They were Washington's audience. They forced him to discover how to present himself persuasively as the president of a republic in which no person could claim political power solely on the basis of inheritance or birth.

Adapted from T.H Breen's new book, George Washington's Journey, published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright @ 2016 by Timothy Breen.

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