“Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy” by Nathaniel Philbrick; Viking (375 pages, $30)
There’s been an impressive flurry of recent books on George Washington, volumes about him as spymaster during the Revolution, his relations with Native Americans, even a breezy biography titled “You Never Forget Your First.” This book, Philbrick’s third on George, is an insightful account of road trips the author took (with his wife, Melissa, and their retriever Dora) tracing Washington’s carriage tours of the young nation after he became president.
Washington hoped personal contact with his fellow citizens would win their allegiance to the new government and underscore the importance of his office (while reminding them countless times, if legend can be believed, that he was “only a man”). He made a point of overnighting in taverns and inns, which often came with lumpy beds and indifferent meals, and he didn’t have AAA to help guide him; the roads, he wrote, “are amazingly crooked ... and the directions you receive from the people equally blind and ignorant.”
It’s fun to read how he would leave his carriage and stage a grand entrance on his white charger when he entered a new town, and how he hated being accompanied from place to place by cavalry (all that dust). Philbrick notes Washington’s warnings about a divisive presidency, one that “agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms,” and he doesn’t skirt “the cold pocket of horror” that Washington owned hundreds of enslaved people though he knew it was wrong.
The United States will continue to be defined by revolution, Philbrick writes, “as each generation renews the struggle to measure up to the ideals with which this country began — that all of us are created equal.” His book is a cogent reminder that while much has changed since Washington’s time, much remains the same.