Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy

According to popular belief, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s famous leader, led the Colonies to an unlikely triumph against the tyrannical British monarchy and its onerous taxation. However, as Nathaniel Philbrick writes in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s true problems as a leader started after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south, and anti-Federalists everywhere (including his own Cabinet), Washington embarked on an unpleasant, grueling tour across the unstable new nation he felt obligated to unify only months after his 1789 inauguration.

In the late summer of 2018, at a tense political juncture, Philbrick, his wife, and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, set off from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the footsteps of the former president. Inspired by John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, in which he wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us,” Philbrick envisioned “a voyage of quirky and humorous adventure,” but it “proved more disturbing and unexpected than I ever could have imagined.”

Philbrick gives the information while visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, marched through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strolled into wearing a plain brown suit (the new president had a flair for political theater). He explains how Washington became known as “the father of the American mule,” dispels falsehoods about the first president’s wooden teeth, and enhances facts with the assistance of local archivists, librarians, curators, docents, and even grandchildren of individuals who were present. But, throughout, Philbrick retains one foot in the present and a respectful perspective on it, assessing risks then—such as when Washington’s horses slid off a ferry—and now—such as when Philbrick’s own yacht nearly overturned in a fierce storm on his trip to Newport, Rhode Island.

“I believe it’s extremely essential that we perceive the past as a lived past rather of something that was fated to be,” Philbrick told BookPage in 2006 for Mayflower, his Pulitzer Prize contender in history. He achieves this goal once again with Travels With George. Washington emerges as the complex, imperfect, but no less courageous leader that his fledgling country sorely needed. The amount and quality of the data gathered by Philbrick as he crosses history and presents make this an exceptional read.

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