Travels with George: In Search of Washington and his Legacy
© 2021 Nathaniel Philbrick
Travels with George couldn’t help but be interesting, what with its premise of the author following George Washington’s footsteps in an reenactment of his tour of the united States during his first term in office. Its promising mix of history and travel is marred (to what degree may be determined by the reader’s taste) by the author’s frequent inclusion of irrelevant stories about himself, and even more chronic infusion of contemporary politics with the text. As a work of history, I was not impressed in the least by the text, but it was frequently interesting, comparable to Sarah Vowell’s history tourism but with her dry humor replaced by constant fretting ruminations on slavery and American history.
Washington is the American Demigod. His stature dwarves all others, and countless places in the United States are named in his honor – including a certain city along the Potomac which hasn’t deserved the honor in decades. Philbrick took this journey in hopes of meeting the human Washington, however, the traveler who would be grappling with storms, delays, and bad taverns, not necessarily questions of national consequence. Washington’s role as President and Father of his Country sat on him regardless of travel demands, though, for as the Constitution was still being ratified by two last holdhouts, the new polity’s nature was his to imbue with authority and legitimacy. His ‘journey’, or rather journeys, were practical in that Washington had to travel to the moving capital – first to New York, then to Philadelphia, and then to a site upon the Potomac that would be called the Federal City in its first decades Although the author is ostensibly focused on covering Washington’s horse-and-carriage tour of the nation, a lot of other revolutionary and other history is woven in, some of it connected to Washington and some not. (The author keeps trying to work in Henry and Bess Truman, as well as John Steinbeck, into the text, when he’s not sharing his own travel experiences, few of which are interesting except for his sailboat encounter with a tornado while sailing to Newport.)
Despite its flaws, I mostly enjoyed Travels with George, largely because of its premise and the strength of the central subject, who I count as one of the most admirable men in history. I found it deeply flawed, though, both by Philbrick’s inability to stay on topic and by his very-Whig history approach to the national story. Most odiously, he dismissed all critics of the early Constitution as southern slaveholders, as though Sam Adams and Luther Martin didn’t exist, and that no motives could possibly exist for opposing the centralization of power aside from the self-interest of an economic minority. (Author is also apparently oblivious to the existence of southerners besides the slave-holding patricians, as are most people. Vanishingly few books have been written about southern yeomen or poor whites.) While I don’t necessarily recommend the book, it’s enjoyable enough, and there are numerous drinking games which could be fabricated from the author’s frequent mentions of his dog, irrelevent sidelines, and political lectures.
Thanks for removing this from my ‘possibly of interest’ list! [grin] I do need to read more about the Revolution and the aftermath. I am VERY cautious about icons though – in my experience they more often than not turn out to be very human.
I’m in that same boat, because I have read nearly nothing about the military aspects of the war.
Agreed about icons, but they have their uses from time to time. Anne Frank, MLK…dramatic stories form around them that we use to shape our collective stories.
This is one I’ve been thinking about reading. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
You’re welcome! Hope it was helpful.
Hmmmm ….. excellent review. It reminded me why I often keep away from contemporary biographies (although this book sounds like a loose-biography/travelogue) unless the author is well-respected, such as David McCullough or Christopher Hibbert. Few people (and especially nowadays) are able to remove themselves from the present and communicate the past. Modern ideas (and opinions) often infiltrate the text and it doesn’t give the reader a very accurate idea of anything except the author’s viewpoint and opinions.
I do like icons. While we are all flawed and it’s important to realize that, I’m not a fan of all the depressing realistic relationships and situations we see on T.V. and read about in modern novels. Why not give us something more respectable and virtuous as an example, something higher to shoot for instead of the realistic mundane?
Are there any modern authors whom you respect for depicting the past well?
Agreed…it’s one of the reasons I rarely read literary criticism, because so much of it is infused with contemporary politics. I’m not interested in intersectional postcolonial opinions about Romeo and Juliet, sorry. 😉
Joseph Ellis is my all-around favorite for the Revolution and early Republic. He’s written numerous biographies of founding individuals, as well as books that focused on the relationships between them and the work that produced “Founding Brothers” introduced me to his work. I’d like to try out Gordon S Wood, though…he has several works with promising titles.
Titles by Joseph Ellis: