Thursday, October 14, 2021

AR-SP12 Nathaniel Philbrick - Travels with George

My guest today is Nathaniel Philbrick, an award winning author of multiple history books of nonfiction.  His most recent books include Bunker Hill, Valiant Ambition - which looks at the relationship between George Washington and Benedict Arnold, and In the Hurricane’s Eye, which covers the Yorktown campaign and the end of the war.

We discussed his latest book Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy.  Mr. Philbrick retraced the various trips that President Washington took as President, trying to shore up support for the Union.  Philbrick traveled with his wife, Melissa and their dog Dora, through New England, New York, and the southern states speaking with people intimate with the local history of each area.

We recorded our conversation, via Zoom, in late September 2021, just weeks after the release of his book.

Michael Troy (MJT)

Nathaniel Philbrick, welcome to the American Revolution. 

Nathaniel Philbrick (NP)

It's great to be with you. 

MJT  

So we're here today to talk about your latest book Travels with George, which I guess was just released a couple of weeks ago? 

NP  

Right. The week before last.

MJT  

You seem to be on a kick.  The last three or four books, you've written have all been about the American Revolution in one way or another. We've been very happy to see that. 

NP  

Well, good. I never really saw it coming. I started with Bunker Hill thinking I was going to write a book about a colonial city, undergoing the pressures of the revolution, and then move on. But once George Washington appeared, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, I was hooked

MJT  

To your book Travels with George, I guess the title is a bit of a take off on Travels with Charlie, by John Steinbeck, who you discuss a couple times in the book. The book also kind of reminded me a bit of, in some way, of Herman Melville's Moby Dick, which I guess you also have some experience with. Melville, of course, wrote a book where part of the book was telling the story of the white whale, and part of the book was about something else, about the whaling business. And you've kind of bifurcated your book in the same way where you move back and forth between the story of George Washington's trip and the story that you took traveling the country following in his footsteps. Why did you decide to take that tack when writing the book?

NP  

Yeah, well, from the beginning, after finishing In the Hurricane's Eye, that was ten years of deep dive into the American Revolution. I just wanted to write a different kind of book. I wanted to change it up. I wanted to have have some fun with it. I think historians can take themselves way too seriously. I wanted to get out of my office, see the country, follow George Washington, head out with my wife and our dog, do our John Steinbeck thing, Travels With Charlie. But I wanted this to be a different narrative challenge. Instead of a narrative that is completely within a certain time period. I wanted it to be a braided narrative, where there's Washington's journey, and there's ours in the contemporary landscape. And I also wanted it to be about history, in a way, how it's remembered, how Washington is remembered ,all of this. So yeah, I was looking to do very kind of Moby Dick-like, which is one of my favorite novels. So, I'm very pleased to see a similarity there. Because I wanted to be a hybrid from the beginning. I wanted it to be a meditation, in a way, as much as a narrative of a trip,

MJT  

Delving into George Washington a little bit here. This book takes place in the first two years of his presidency and involves the traveling that he did, away from the capital city of New York at the time, Washington famously only took on the presidency reluctantly.  He much rather would have been home at Mount Vernon. And of course, during the first couple of years of his presidency, he had quite a bit going on: setting up a new government, dealing with a number of Indian tribe problems, setting up new taxes, designing a capital city, all these things. Why did Washington think it was so important to spend months away from the capital and away from home? Just traveling around and meeting people? 

NP  

There are a couple of reasons. One of them was that, from the very beginning, he realized he was the leader of a politically-divided country. There wasn't a party system yet. That was yet to be devised. But the Constitution has divided the country into two groups: the Federalists, those who supported the Constitution, and the strong federal government and created; and the anti-Federalists who wanted the states to retain the power they had had, under the Articles of Confederation and distrusted a strong central government, particularly when it came to taxation. These thirteen former colonies had, after all, revolted from the British Empire over the issue of taxation. 

When Washington was inaugurated on April 30 1789, two states, Rhode Island and North Carolina, hadn't ratified the Constitution. They hadn't participated in his election. And then there was the matter of regional alliances, when the governor of Virginia said my country, he meant Virginia, he didn't mean the United States of America. 

Washington wanted to instill a sense of unity. And this is before mass media, before you could turn on the TV and see the president presenting an address. He had to physically get to as many Americans as possible, go on a series of road trips that would take him to the towns, villages throughout New England, throughout the deep south. And he was a southerner, but he had never been in South Carolina and Georgia. So he just went out there. And when Congress would go into recess, he'd hit the road and listen to people, talk to people, but most importantly, be there for them to see that they now had a new political system, and a president of the United States was now leading this country.

MJT  

In many ways, Washington was the one unifying force that the country had after they lost their common enemy of the British at the end of the war. There were a lot of, as you say, divisions.  People thought of their state as their country and particularly their regionalism. New Englanders did not have a lot of good feelings about southerners and vice versa. Washington, of course, was the hero of the American Revolution, having won it. I guess this trip was, in a lot of ways, playing off of his celebrity status, for lack of a better word, as a way of unifying the country?

NP  

Nathaniel Philbrick
Exactly. He was the most popular man in the world at this point. As you said he was a celebrity of an order, I don't think we can even comprehend today in terms of, when watch and walked into a room that respect immediately commanded. He was a smart guy. After eight years as commander of the Continental Army, he knew how to make an impression. He knew how to use theatrics on his behalf. And in this situation, he wasn't trying to project the image of an all-powerful general, leading his ragtag army against the strongest military force on earth type of thing. He wanted to use that charisma to create a sense of an office of the presidency that would outlive anybody. It wasn't about him. It was about creating a nation of laws an executive-led nation of laws. And so he was consciously using his celebrity to create a sense of pride and a sense of nationhood. 

One of the things he would do is, before entering a town or city, he would step out of the horse and carriage he was in most of the time, dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform mount his great big white horse, during the southern tour, it was Prescott, and right down the main thoroughfare to tremendous acclaim.  He was making an impression. This is before rock music and, and huge video screens, you know, that you see in a stadium, a political rally, Washington was doing it on his horse, making a huge impression. One of the things I wanted to explore was not just Washington's point of view, but the point of view of the people as he came to these towns. 

Judging from the evidence in terms of diaries, and newspaper accounts, and oral histories which were later preserved, he just rocked everybody's world when he came. This was something. If you were an eight year old kid watching Washington, walk down the street, it was something you never forgot. And you were telling the great grandchildren 80 years later,

MJT  

Yeah, I think prior to the development of radio and TV, people a lot less going on in their lives. So somebody coming to town was always a lot more interest back then I think. 

NP  

Yeah, yeah. the roads were just jammed with people. This didn't happen every day. And now the other thing is, it wouldn't happen again for another 30-some years.  He established this precedent.  Other presidents were reluctant to spend the time and the energy it required, because when everybody else in government was off, he was doing this. And so people came from out of the woodwork to see him come to them. 

MJT  

You mentioned a bit in your book. You say of course, he traveled in a coach for most of the trip. But when he was entering a town, he would exit the coach, get on his horse, and ride into town, kind of staging himself. And you talk a little bit about some of the details he went into, for lack of a better word, using makeup on his horse to make his white horse whiter and the black hooves blacker. And, interestingly, that he wore his uniform. Washington very famously wore a brown civilian suit for his inauguration, stressing the fact that a civilian was leading this country, not a military man. Why do you think he chose to wear his military uniform on this trip?

NP  

Very good question. I think he was going for the wow factor. He was consciously drawing on that celebrity status we talked about. And it's interesting, he would modulate it. For example, in the beginning of his New England tour, when he's on his way to the presidency, he's wearing it a lot comes to Worcester, he's in that brown suit, and the people love it, because he's clearly making: I am one of you. I am one of the people.  But when he rides into Boston with thousands of people jamming into the city, he had just reviewed the militia in Cambridge, and he's dressed as the general. 

And it's interesting because the political divisions that were there from the beginning would begin to widen. Partisanship would come in. And one of the fears the Anti-Federalists had was that Washington would create a very British-like government, a virtual monarchy. And so when he was dressing in that uniform, riding that horse with his leopard skin saddle pad, he's taking on the kind of militaristic fanfare that gets associated with a monarch. And so he was flirting with both sides. On the other side, he insisted on staying only in public taverns, not staying with his rich friends. There would be no favorites. And so contrary to that whole, I am the conquering hero, he is a man of the people staying in the Motel Sixes of his day, because these taverns were terrible food, horrible beds, and two taverns in New England, they would turn him away at night, because they didn't recognize who he was. I mean, he doesn't think much respect. And so he didn't enjoy this aspect of it, but he felt he needed to do it, because he was skirting that line between theatrics and being a humble member of the populace.

MJT  

It was a difficult situation that he was in because, as you say, he was accused of acting like a king at times.  He had to present himself as a superior man, for lack of a better word, that he was an elite. He was a leader. He was a giant among men. But he also wanted to show himself as a man of the people, a commoner.  So, as you say, he wanted to mix with the common people, but not appear as a common man himself.

NP  

Right. And it's interesting. Particularly during this New England tour, there's some instances in the Southern tour when he's inland and making his way through Salisbury, North Carolina, and those kinds of places, which was really hard hit during the revolution, there's traditions of him saying "I am only a man," either Washington, saying that or a kid staring wide-eyed at him saying, "he's only a man." At first I thought, Oh, this is too good to be true. Is this a tradition to be trusted? But the sheer number of these instances, and it wasn't as if these were published in newspapers, and then broadcast around, made me realize maybe he really was saying this.  You know, sort of trying to "Yeah, I'm the big dude here, but I'm only a man" He's just constantly flirting at it. And that's the way it is, to this day, when it comes to the presidency, a president wants to have it both ways, he is a man of the people. He remembers the barbecues of his youth in Iowa or wherever.  But he also wants to project this image of a commander in charge and above the common man when it comes to that kind of ability to make decisions. And so it goes with the institution.  We do not have someone who is there because of their bloodlines, or whatever. And so it will always be a struggle. And it's just fascinating watching Washington deal with it at the very beginning of our history

MJT  

Right, he was, as you say, almost setting the tone for future presidents to come exactly what line should the president walk to show that he was a leader, but also be one of the people. 

I guess before we get too far into this, we should say exactly what trips Washington took. You cover basically four different trips, his first two years of office.  Can you just briefly go over where he went?

NP  

The first one, which really wasn't one, that didn't fit in this category, was his journey from Mount Vernon to the temporary capital in New York. And that carried much of the earmarks of what would become the tour. But it wasn't really part of that. It's just getting him to the capital and his inauguration.

It's not even six months into his presidency where he embarks on the first tour, a tour of New England.  But it's significant that he does not go through Rhode Island, which has not yet ratified the Constitution. And it's just fascinating watching him come up with his route to avoid Rhode Island, because he took different routes going north and returning south to New York. And so he avoided Rhode Island but got as far north as Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and during the harbor tour, stepped onto what's now Kittery Point, Maine.  It's then part of Massachusetts, and then would return to New York. 

About six months after that, in April of next year, he would embark on the most unique of his tours, a tour of western Long Island. And where all these other tours are all over the press. There's all these accounts of just about every second he's on the road. There's no mention whatsoever. This is completely under the radar. A lot of people said what was he doing? Well, it was only four days. And when you look at where he went, it's clear, he was visiting the sights of the people that were instrumental in the Culper Spy Ring, the nerve center of that was Setauket, New York and almost smack dab on the North Shore of Long Island, where Washington stayed in the tavern of the guy who would take the messages from New York to Setauket where they were then sailed by whaleboat to Fairfield, Connecticut, and then made their way to Washington on the Hudson. So the identities of these people were a secret, not even the families knew.  If this revolution should fail ultimately, and Great Britain came back into power of the former colonies. You didn't want it known that you had been a spy during the Revolution. And so Washington could not overtly thank these people. But clearly, that was, may have been some curiosity as well as anything just to sort of check this all out. Because he'd never seen this.

MJT  

I imagine that Washington had spent years in New Jersey and upstate New York, kind of staring at New York City and Long Island that had been occupied by the British for almost the entire war. It must have just been a pleasure to be able to walk over that land and say that it's ours again,

NP  

Right. Can you imagine? having for all those years, just the frustrations. He lost the battle of Long Island. And after that the British had the whole island in the city. And what a source of personal frustration that must have been. It's clear from some of the anecdotes that have been preserved, he was really enjoying himself during this Long Island tour. 

And then he gets back to New York, comes down with the flu.  It nearly kills, literally - it nearly killed him. He's in poor health most of that summer, but by that June, he learns that Rhode Island the last state to ratify the Constitution, is now part of the United States of America. Almost spur of the moment, he seems to have jumped on the schooner, sailed from New York to Newport and Providence. And this was kind of a gutsy move, because Rhode Island was the home of the greatest skeptics. When it came to this new government. Modern day political pundits might have branded enemy territory, Washington took the opposite course arrived in Newport. Rhode Islanders were thunderstruck Whoa, he's taking the time to do this? And he succeeded in turning the state with the biggest doubters in the nation into some of his biggest fans. 

Soon after that, the temporary capital moves to Philadelphia and Washington, by this point, the Residency Act is passed and it's his job to start planning what will become Washington, DC on the Potomac.  And he departs on his southern tour, which will be bookended by stops at what will become Washington, DC as he negotiates with the land owners and starts to survey the borders of what will be the nation's capital. And this is the longest, most ambitious tour of them all. More than, close to 2000 miles.  It would take him all the way down to Savannah, Georgia, inland to Augusta, back to Camden, South Carolina, to Charlotte to Salem, old Salem, Guilford Courthouse. And once again, as you were saying, you know how this curiosity about Long Island. This is where the Revolution had been fought in its final years, and he had never been there.

MJT  

He had been up by New York during the entire southern campaign.  He had never visited all these southern battlefields.

NP  

No, and he obviously lived and died by what happened there. And so this gave him the opportunity to actually see the sights and so can you imagine tell the former commander of the Continental Army, having the chance to to see Horatio Gates' defeat there at Camden.  The skeletons of the horses were still there. The bark of the trees is still riddled by musket balls, and all this kind of thing. And that took three months, and he eventually ended up back in Philadelphia.

MJT  

You touched on the fact that he was starting to set up Washington, DC at the time. I was struck by some of his negotiating skills with the landowners in Washington - how you said that he kind of divided up the land that they owned, and essentially took part of it for the government saying that well, the part that you'll keep will go up so much in value that you're going to win in the end. And, by the way, if you don't take this deal, I'm going to move up the road a few miles and go somewhere else,

NP  

Right. Oh, he was a real estate mogul in a way.  He already had huge swaths of land in western Virginia, western Pennsylvania that he got by dubious means, as a consequence of his service in the French and Indian War. So he knew how to barter for land. And yeah, and these landowners really never had a chance. He went down.  They came up with a deal. And then while he's in the midst of the Southern tour, he gets word that they balked, that they claim the deal is in the scope that they had never intended. So he comes back, and in a day, he has them realizing they better go back to the deal. 

The federal government hadn't come up with with any money to create this national capital, Maryland and Virginia, which bordered the Potomac, and which would profit from having a nation's capital within their territory, came up with some money. But other than that he had to rely on - this had to be a real estate deal. It never really worked financially for anyone, including Washington's friends who tried to get in on this, thinking was a get rich quick scheme. From Washington's perspective. All vectors in the country pointed to the Potomac being the location of the nation's capital. From the time the French and Indian War even his older brother actually had seen this as the destiny of this country that from the west would come trade goods down to the Potomac, to the east. And so, from his perspective, this was how it had to be. That the Potomac never became what the Erie Canal would become, does not necessarily negate the kind of idealism behind something that could very easily be perceived as a deal in his own backyard that was to his personal benefit.

MJT  

You also mentioned in the book, before he embarked on his trip to New York at the beginning of the story, he actually had to borrow money to make the trip. He was very land rich, of course, and had a lot of property. But that was kind of how tough things were for Washington before he even took this job.

NP  

Absolutely, I mean, this, you know, we have the sense of him, being the richest man in the United States, you know, that kind of thing.  He wasn't.  Yes, we had a lot of land.  But there wasn't the market to sell. He desperately wanted to sell a lot of his western lands. In fact, at one point, he had hopes that those that sale would go through, he could not only free his own enslaved workers, but those owned by Martha's deceased husband - purchase them to freedom. That was his ambition. But no, it never came through. 

Can you imagine? Here he is.  He's just been elected President of the United States, and he owes money all over Alexandria. And so he goes through the humiliating process of hitting up his friends, who actually say, well, we can't come up with that much, but I'll give you this. This is how it kind of slinks out of town, towards what will become the presidency. And this is an image of Washington, I think a lot of people don't quite perceive. He was not this all-powerful man who knew what was going to happen. He was hanging on for dear life in many aspects of his personal life and his political life.

MJT  

Washington was always one for keeping up appearances and appearing as if he was a wealthy, successful gentleman. So even when he did have money troubles, he would do his best to hide it, which is probably one reason we don't hear a lot about it. And of course, during his lifetime, people were constantly trying to hit him up for money, because they thought he was someone who could help out and he often had to say, Sorry, can't help you, don't have the cash.

NP

Oh, yeah, every college in the country wanted him to contribute. It was nonstop. One of the things that struck me in researching this is in the years before he became president, he was virtually besieged at Mount Vernon with visitors. At one point he describes it to his mother in Fredericksburg as he is the owner of a tavern. Just about everyone who is headed south or north seems to stop here.  It was a treadmill of bringing people in and out. Once again, this is not a guy who's coming down from the mountaintop and becoming lord of all he surveys. This is someone who's just been through eight years of the American Revolution.  It's kind of just rather be home and let be left alone, but there's no way you can leave behind who he has become.

MJT  

One of the other real limitations, which you touched on a minute ago was the fact that even property that he owned, land and slaves and other things, were not his.  He married the widow of a wealthy man and held all that property in trust for his wife, and then her children, his stepchildren, and he was somewhat by law and certainly by honor, obliged to - he had a fiduciary duty to maximize that wealth for other people, because that was his duty.  That in some ways, limited what he could do as far as freeing slaves.  I'm not saying, he may not have done so anyway. But it was a limitation on him, on what he could do, and how he could use the property that was under his control.

NP  

Absolutely. It was a very complicated personal situation. He had married into wealth, but it wasn't his. It was all for Martha's grandchildren, once they came of age, and if it was perceived that he had recklessly overspent or abused that trust that he could be in for legal action. 

It was at Mount Vernon, thousands of acres, this huge agricultural complex, it was losing money every year. Land basically had been exhausted by tobacco farming by previous generations. Washington no longer did tobacco because it drained the soil.  He was using wheat, very scientifically-oriented agricultural practices. But still, it wasn't making money. And so yes, he had this vast endeavor that took huge amounts of energy to supervise, but it wasn't making him money. 

You add that to the fact that he's been away for eight years as commander of the Continental Army, and then he's away for another eight years of President United States in a position where he really can't manage things. He was not a great financial situation, and desperately worried in many instances about what he would do next.

MJT  

One of the other things that really surprised me about Washington, I guess I just hadn't read about before was the three brushes with death that he had the first two years of his presidency. You touched on one before, the fact that he had a really bad bout of pneumonia. He also had a tumor on his upper thigh or lower buttocks that had to be removed, a very large one that required surgery, which in those times was always dangerous, because there was no attempts at being sanitary or anything. So there's a great deal of danger of post-op infections. And then he also almost drowned while crossing a river when he began his southern tour,

NP  

And then add to the fact that he took the ferry across the Chesapeake to Annapolis, and they were caught in a thunderstorm. And the boat he was on grounded on a shoal towards the entrance in Annapolis, and they were almost beaten to death. Remember, this was a time when the roads were in terrible shape. Just getting from here to there was an ordeal and often a dangerous ordeal. 

His health was precarious. He was a man who had been, all his life, very physically active. As a teenager, he was a surveyor, traveling throughout the wilderness of the country. As a general he was crisscrossing the country constantly. And even on his plantation in the years after the revolution, he would spend six hours on horseback inspecting Mount Vernon. 

When he suddenly becomes president, he's trapped in an office all day, with the huge stresses of creating the office of the presidency. He almost immediately comes down with that tumor you mentioned, that comes very close to killing him. It's not until the fall that he has recovered and it hit him in June. And then just after his Long Island tour, he gets the flu. And they thought that was the end of it, until suddenly the fever breaks. And months later, his health is back. But as Lafayette would write him, my God, my general, do not work so hard in the cabinet. Your health is a sacred trust you hold with the American people. And so he saw, a part of him saw these tours as a way to get out of the office, get some exercise, get away from the stresses of being a precedent setting. first president of the United States.  You can look at these tours as the way that Washington saved, not only his country, but himself at a very fundamental way. 

It's an interesting story. This is not the marble man looking destiny in the face and walking with certitude to great success. This is a person who is 57 years old, when he becomes president, almost immediately has a near-fatal illness. Will have several of them in the next couple of years as he would write to someone, it's very likely this will kill me, but this will not prevent them from doing what I perceive is my duty. So this is a guy who's just trying to make it work desperately, besieged on just about every front. I think his first feat of endurance is the revolution. I mean, I don't know how we got through those eight years, given all the stresses of working with the Continental Congress, working with his French allies at some times and that did not seem to be allies. And then to do this for eight years. I just don't know how he made it through.

MJT  

He was just an amazing manager of people. In other words, he could usually get them to do what he wanted without looking like he was pushing them around. Although he wasn't afraid of bullying people either. On occasion, I think you mentioned John Hancock kind of dissed him when he visited Boston.

NP  

Yes. I think that's one of the great instances of examples of Washington, playing it very shrewdly.  He comes to Boston.  John Hancock and he had a tricky relationship. John Adams claimed that Hancock had expected that he would become commander of the Continental Army and took umbrage when Washington became the choice to lead the Continental Army.  And later, when Hancock became Governor of Massachusetts during the Revolution, Washington would write him letter after letter pleading for more troops or provisions, which Hancock not even answer. So this was a relationship a little bit fraught. 

And so when Washington is approaching Boston, is in Worcester making his way. Hancock invites Washington this day, as was mentioned on Beacon Hill, Washington, regretfully informs him that the policy is I must stay in taverns. so I have to decline. So Hancock says, Okay, well, will you come to dinner. And Washington said I'd be happy to come to dinner. 

Well, when Washington arrives in Boston, Hancock is a no show. He's not there.  His emissaries, Samuel Adams, give their apologies. But he has the gout and doesn't feel well enough. Washington takes note. He's met by this huge crowd, watches his parade, huge success and goes back to his quarters, and writes Hancock, a note saying, since I haven't seen you, I regretfully will not be coming to dinner. 

Hancock realizes that he's made a gross miscalculation. Back in the day, the governors were the powers. Now it's a different game. The point of this is Washington is instructing as well as listening to people that he, as president, ranks above a governor.  Hancock sends a note: I will be risking my life, but I will come to see me, as is my duty. And so he has two servants carry him in his gouty legs wrapped in red flannel, saying, my apologies, but it's great to have you here in Boston, and then goes back to this house and Washington says, Okay, I will come to dinner now. But message delivered.  

It's almost laughable today to think that a governor would think he outranks the president of United States, maybe not more. But the only reason that we take it for granted. That's the way it is now is because Washington turned down Hancock's dinner invitation. These are the kinds of protocols he was establishing.

//

MJT

Organizing this trip must have been difficult, because the don't seem to be a whole lot of records about exactly where he went, what he did. And a lot of it is just local history, and maybe has a dubious provenance to it. How did you go about planning this trip?

NP  

You're right, it's sketchy. We have some information, particularly when it comes to his New England tour. But when it comes to the southern tour, we have Washington's diary, and the record of all the addresses that was presented to him at each town citizen went to and his responses. But how did he go about this? 

Well, my wife and I looked at Washington's itinerary, and decided we needed to divide the two longer tours, the southern tour, which is the longest and the New England tour, in half. And it's a good thing too, because it's nowhere near what Washington went through. 

But I made a list of all the towns to visit. And I reached out to as many of the historical societies and libraries of each town as I could. And I soon was flooded with all this great information, even before we headed out. And in many instances, the local historians volunteered to show us around. And so there was a series of interviews I would have as we went along on our tour. 

And so I had to break it up. In a typical day was to go from one town to the next. We were traveling with a dog so we only stay in dog-friendly accommodations. Now sometimes you weren't really sure how far we were going to get to have to be left to the last minute. But we had a schedule, very much like Washington, where I said to someone will be meeting you at a certain time. And so we'd do that. I was taking notes all the time. I had my notebook, and then we'd get into a dog-friendly hotel in the evening.  I would, after dinner, would spend the evening typing up my notes and the next morning, we'd head out crack of dawn, much like Washington. We would spend a year and a half, not continually, following Washington, with each jaunt being about a week to ten days.  On the southern tour, because we had a dog we wanted to make sure it wasn't too hot. So we did that in late spring. And it was perfect weather. But it was a real logistical challenge. 

Luckily, I'm fairly organized, but my wife Melissa is really organized. So she was the one who really made the spreadsheets of where we would be and all this. But that said, when you go on a road trip, there's always surprises.  No matter how much you plan. The trip is really what's governing.  As Steinbeck says, you don't go on a trip. the trip takes us.  It was those surprises that really were the gold in terms of what would happen. 

Go up to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Melissa would have a Washington's diary spread out on her lap. So we would come to a place and she'd recite what Washington saw at that point, which is really kind of cool. But we get to Portsmouth, and we need a place to stay. And so she gets on VRBO, and there in Kittery Point, Maine, which Washington visited during his harbor tour, is a reference to the red cottage overlooking the stone dock that Washington stepped out on during that harbor tour when we went to Kittery Point. Oh my God! Can we stay in this place? We couldn't, but the owner was very happy to meet with us and showed us the dock. So it was a search for accommodations that brought us a real research breakthrough because Jim, who showed us around, was a direct descendant of Washington's personal secretary. The financial book of Washington's first year in the presidency was discovered on this guy's property decades earlier. So this was the kind of historical vortex who kept finding themselves in.

MJT  

Well, that's the great thing about doing this, as opposed to just going to libraries and looking at records. You stumble upon so much local history, things that are kind of known to the locals, but may not be generally known because they've never really been published in a nationally known book before.

NP

Absolutely. Tip O'Neill have famously said, all politics is local, after this experience, all history is local. It's the local historians and librarians that really keep the flame. And as you said, they know stuff that a cursory national view of the event will inevitably miss. And so for us, that was really the cool stuff that came out of, not only hidden in the archives of remotely, but going to the places,

MJT  

I assume all this travel was done pre-pandemic, I can't imagine being able to do it today. 

NP  

We got it in just under the wire, but I was writing the book as the pandemic hit, as George Floyd getting killed by the police, you know, the social, you know, all of that happening.  All the issues, the issues that were bubbling up at that time had been latent, during our journey. But what it did, it just gave the writing process, it just felt like a red hot vector into the the soul of this country was there.  It made me feel Washington was even more relevant now than ever before. I know there are people who will say just the opposite. But I insist if we're ever going to come to terms with our country's legacy with slavery, someone like Washington, who was struggling with that legacy himself, he is more relevant than ever before, if we're going to understand, truly understand, where this nation came.

MJT  

Struggling with the issue of slavery is always a complex one. A lot of people have made note of his chasing down Ona Judge over so many years, who was an escaped slave that he just really struggled to recover and jump through a lot of hoops to bring back this escaped slave, as a way of condemning the man because he did support slavery, and he was a slave owner. But also you have to remember Ona Judge didn't belong to him, belong to his wife's family. And he felt a moral obligation to recover lost property, which is what he deemed this woman to be,

NP  

Which looks really bad. 

MJT  

Yeah. 

NP  

In one sense, is bad, but once again, with this book, I wanted to look all of that square in the face, not giving him a break on it. But he's a human being. History cannot be pigeonholed into good guys - bad guys. I don't care who you are.  Unless you're conflicted, you're not a thinking person.  That complexity is what we need to look at. And so yeah, he's a paradox. He is working on the will that will free his enslaved workers that he owns, even as he's pursuing Ona Judge, who was part of Martha's husband's estate. And how do you hold those two together? 

It doesn't look good from our vantage point today. But you've got to see it from all sides to have some appreciation. Hey, this is a guy who's a slaveholder land baron, but he believes with all his soul in the Union, the concept that led to Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, and that's the country we are part of, and Washington was at the center.

MJT  

Right. That's what I kind of look at it too. You have to judge people, not by today's standards, but more by how far they moved us forward. We don't condemn Abraham Lincoln for not supporting the women's right to vote. And we don't condemn FDR for not supporting gay marriage.   They were moving us in a direction to where we get to a better world with more civil rights, even if they did not see us all the way.

NP  

Right. And we are all victims of our own time. And it's so easy from the vantage point of the present to look back on the past and condemn it. Believe me, and 50 to 100 years, plenty of people are going to be looking at the most self-righteous of us today, saying what the heck were they thinking? They should have been doing this. We're in the fog of the present. 

This country was born in a revolution, Declaration of Independence, all people are created equal. Every generation undergoes a kind of revolution, as the terms of it are reinvented, and it's an ongoing aspirational society. But it doesn't mean it's perfect. Human nature just will not allow that to happen.  Thank goodness, because otherwise, this would be a static tableau without any kind of dynamic nature, creativity, and conflict.

MJT  

So for anyone who might plan to want to follow in your footsteps maybe and make some of these trips to various places on Washington's journey other than not setting sail during a tornado. What advice might you give them? What places to visit? What are the most interesting spots that you found?

NP  

Right yeah, maybe not sail to Newport like we did. But you have to read the book to find out what happened. 

MJT  

Yeah, that's a great story. People have to read it. 

NP  

Oh, man. My wife and I are still a little shell-shocked when it comes to going out there in stormy conditions but you got to begin in Mount Vernon. I mean, Mount Vernon, there's just no place like it. That's where our journey began and ended.  I'd recommend that.  

What I would recommend is anyone who wants to go on a road trip history-themed vacation, take a look at this book. Take a look at the maps. You can also look at my acknowledgments in which I list all the towns and the people who helped us and go for a portion or a whole leg. You could spend two weeks doing a quick New England, or you could divide it in half like we did. 

But I can't say a favorite. We loved the Long Island tour. It was just so unexpected and wonderful. The southern tour oh my gosh, you go to Hampton plantation, on your way to Charleston. Washington visited there, the owner had just built a new porch that looked on this huge live oak. And when Washington was there, the owner said, I think I'm going to have to cut down this live oak, beautiful tree, but it's right in front of our new porch. And Washington, the supposed cutter down of the cherry tree, says, No, you should leave it, the live oak that really no man can replace. And if you go there today, there is, this monster of a tree. I mean, there's just talk about entering a vortex of history. This is a living organic monument to what Washington was doing. And so those kinds of things are great. 

We went to Charleston, climbed the tower of St. Michael's Church, and you're looking at exactly the same view. Washington did 230 years earlier. Savannah, we made the mistake of arriving in the midst of a St. Patrick's Day weekend. Little did we know that Savannah, they really take St. Patrick's Day seriously.  It's the second biggest St. Patrick's Day parade in the country, second only to Chicago. And it's kind of appropriate. It was a weekend we will never forget. And yet when Washington was there, it was a big party too. Some things in Savannah had never changed. 

And so my wife and I already are nostalgic for the fun we had. It's not all fun. There's some sober lessons to be learned. But it's just a fantastic way to see this country, one town at a time.

MJT  

I noticed that picture in the back of your book was a picture of you and I assume Dora? 

NP  

Right, 

MJT  

which is yeah, she's an incredible dog. But it must have been tough traveling with a dog.

NP  

Well, Dora. Yes, Dora now is four years old, but back then was pretty much a puppy. And she's a Nova scotia duck tolling retriever, high energy, very intelligent, but she needed a couple of runs a day. And so we would break up our tours. You just had to have a Dora stop or two. But she was also a great way to sort of initiate a conversation. This red dog, and it looks kind of like a fox, with the bushy tail, a white tip tail. She was great. She was a much a part of the narrative and at some points as anybody. I'm just so glad we took her along.

MJT  

I take your wife wasn't offended by being cut out of the cover photo with Dora?.

NP  

Well, you know, at one point, she did say I've been erased from this.  And I said, do you really want? she said no, not really. I'm just thankful she came because it just made it so much more fun. I know, if you're a travel writer, you're supposed to be by yourself sitting at bars and chatting people up. But the two of us did a pretty good job of that. And Melissa's a character in it. She has a great ability to sort of poke holes into my enthusiasms and point out how I'm overstating or missing something.

MJT  

So is there anything else you want readers to take away from reading your book?

NP  

One of the things that became clear to myself was how far Washington traveled. And I don't just mean in miles and taverns and towns he went to, but how far he traveled as a man, I mean, as a human being. This is a guy who was born into the institution of slavery. He became a slave owner at age eleven, when his father inherited some enslaved workers, and goes into the revolution, which changes him. His relationship with Lafayette, who would later say, I've never would have lifted sword in the cause of the American Revolution. If I had known I was creating a land of slavery. That friendship with Lafayette persists. 

And he's changing and he's seeing things differently. You know, as we've discussed, he would not free his enslaved workers until his death. But that doesn't mean he wasn't wrestling with it. At one point during the second term, he was heard to say if slavery should ever divide this country, I will go with the northern part, which is a pretty extraordinary statement for a Virginian. Washington was able to recognize that certain assumptions we grew up with weren't right.  He wasn't able to completely escape from those assumptions. But that doesn't negate I think the extraordinary journey went on, not only as a president traveling the country, but as a human being coming to terms with what is important in this nation in the long term.

MJT  

Before I let you go. Is there anything new you're working on? Now that you've wrapped this book up?

NP  

Yeah, well, my wife and I have already gone on yet another research trip. It's going to be the California Gold Rush. I live on Nantucket Island, which was almost depopulated of able bodied men with the discovery of gold. They hopped in there old whalers that were no longer making any money, sailed around the horn, abandoned them at the Golden Gate. But I'm also fascinated with the overland aspect of it. And people also went by steam boats to the isthmus.  And California - I want to explore this phenomenon, not just the Anglo Americans, but the Asian community, Hispanic community, African American. It was an international event, and so I'm really looking forward to it. 

MJT  

Well that sounds fascinating. We certainly look forward to it. Your book though Travels with George is on sale now. I urge everyone to grab a copy. It was very interesting. Nat Philbrick, I really appreciate you appearing today on the American Revolution Podcast.

NP  

Oh, it's great to talk to you.

I’d like to thank Mr. Philbrick, once again, for taking the time to speak with me about his latest book Travels with George: In Search of George Washington and His Legacy.  See below for links to his books.

- - -

Next  Episode 221 British Raid Virginia (Available Oct. 10, 2021)


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