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.