Compass

Interview

In TRAVELS WITH GEORGE, readers will get to know an eighteenth-century America that was, in many ways, as divided and fraught as it is today. A surprising fact given that the former 13 colonies had just spent seven years fighting together for their independence. Washington set out on 5 road trips around the new nation with the hope of bringing this unruly collection of states together.  What lessons could America’s politicians today learn from George, as they struggle with the similar task of uniting a divided nation?
One thing that impressed me about Washington was his willingness to reach across the partisan divide.  Take Rhode Island, for example, the last state to ratify the Constitution more than a year after Washington’s election.  I think it’s safe to say that no citizens in America were more skeptical of the new government.  And yet, when Washington learned that Rhode Island had finally ratified the Constitution, he hopped on a schooner and sailed to Newport and Providence.  The suddenness of the move surprised and ultimately delighted the Rhode Islanders, and Washington succeeded in turning some of his biggest doubters into some of his biggest fans.

The same held true for Washington’s tour of the South when he plunged into the interior of Georgia and the Carolinas where a new federal tax on whiskey was highly unpopular.  Washington wasn’t afraid to venture into what might be regarded today as enemy territory—a valuable lesson, I think, in any era, but particularly our own.

What are some of the main themes / issues in the book?
TRAVELS WITH GEORGE is about the nature of history and how, to paraphrase Tip O’Neal’s famous phrase about politics, all history is local—especially when it comes to the legacy of Washington’s presidential tour.  The book also investigates how the legacy of slavery was evident throughout our travels—from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where one of Washington’s enslaved servants fled in search of freedom, to Newport, Rhode Island, once the seat of the American slave trade, to stops throughout the South, where the issue of how to commemorate the past, particularly when it comes to Confederate monuments, was seemingly omnipresent.  The book is also about the nature of travel and how a journey, no matter how well planned, inevitably takes the traveler in unexpected directions, which in our case included a brush with a tornado on the way to Newport and a sublime moment in a horse-drawn carriage in Philadelphia as we took in the sights with our dog Dora.  In the end, the book is about George Washington, a historical figure with whom all Americans must reckon if they are to do justice to the complicated beginnings of the United States.

Toward the end of  TRAVELS WITH GEORGE you shared that “what worried Washington more than anything else was what might happen if a president’s chief priority was to divide rather than unite the American people,” which is pretty prescient given the world we are living in today. What do you think our first president would have made of the division of the American people today?
Washington would have been saddened by the acrimonious divide that’s gripped American politics, but I don’t think he would have been surprised by it.  Even as he was doing everything he could to unite the American people by touring the country, his own secretary of state Thomas Jefferson was secretly working to organize the Anti-Federalists into what became the opposition party, the Republicans (not to be confused with today’s party of the same name).  By the beginning of his second term, Washington was deeply embittered by the political divisions that threatened to destroy the country.  In this regard, some things have never changed, and yet, judging from Washington’s Farewell Address, I think he would have been horrified by recent attempts to undermine the people’s trust in the rule of law.  Washington worked tremendously hard—both in the presidential mansion and on the road—to strengthen the people’s faith in a federal government that transcended the ego of any single leader.  Ultimately, it’s up to every generation to reaffirm the legitimacy of what Washington helped to establish at the very beginning of our country’s history.

What are some things you think will surprise readers?
I think readers will be surprised by how deeply divided the American people already were at the time of Washington’s election.  There were no organized political parties as of yet, but there were two factions:  the Federalists, who supported the Constitution and the strong, executive-led federal government it had created, and the Anti-Federalists, who believed the states should retain more power.  Two states, Rhode Island and North Carolina, had not even ratified the Constitution by the time Washington was sworn in as president.  Washington needed to do something to bring this unruly collection of states together, so he set out on the first of five road trips.  But that wasn’t the only reason Washington decided to tour the country.  There was also the matter of his health. Almost as soon as he became president, he was afflicted by a series of medical emergencies that almost killed him.  To get the exercise his body craved, Washington needed to get out of the office and hit the road.  I think readers will also be surprised by how modest an affair a presidential tour was in 1789.  Instead of Air Force One, he traveled in a carriage pulled by four horses.  To prove he was a man of the people, he insisted on staying only in public taverns, the often flea-infested roadside motels of his day.  But Washington knew how to make an impression.  When he came to the outskirts of a town, he’d slip out of the carriage dressed in his general’s uniform, mount his big white horse, and ride down the main thoroughfare to thunderous acclaim.

In his time on the road, George Washington seemed to want to show that he was a man of the people—staying in taverns (the eighteenth century equivalent of road side motels), traveling in a humble carriage and visiting local shops—but Washington also wanted to allow the American people to celebrate what he represented, war victory and a united nation, as he donned his General’s uniform and rode on his great white horse down each town’s thoroughfare to thunderous applause.  Do you think there are aspects of standard modern day political campaigns that can be traced back to Washington’s strategies on this tour?
If you’ve experienced the throbbing rock music and flashy, screen-projected visuals of a modern-day political rally, you’ve witnessed a 21st century version of what Washington started back in 1789.  Having been commander in chief of the Continental army for 8 years, he knew how to make an impression, entering a town or city on his big white horse as the people went wild.  But he also had a talent for the intimate gesture.  When he entered New York City by boat he was greeted by an army officer who was to escort him to his new residence.  Turning to the surrounding crowd, Washington insisted that “the affections of his fellow citizens was all the guard he needed.” Can you imagine if that moment had been caught on camera? It was a different era, but the political and personal dynamics were much the same.

TRAVELS WITH GEORGE is a bit of a departure for you.  Instead of a work of straight history, this book takes a more personal approach as the narrative goes back-and-forth between George Washington’s tour of the original thirteen states and your own travels along Washington’s route with your wife Melissa and dog Dora. Why did you take this approach to the story?
I’d just finished a trilogy about the American Revolution in which, no surprise, George Washington plays a prominent part, and I wanted to explore what happened to him next.  But I was also getting a little stir crazy in my basement office on Nantucket.  I wanted to get out and actually see the country I’d been writing about for all these years.  My wife Melissa was about to retire, and for the first time in decades we’d have the flexibility to travel for more than a week at a time.  That’s when I got the idea of retracing Washington’s travels during the first years of his presidency.  By following our first president as he attempted to bring the country together, I hoped to gain some historical perspective on our own politically divided times.  And just to make the trip a little livelier, we decided to bring along our new puppy—a high-energy Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever named Dora.  Thus was born, with due homage to John Steinbeck, TRAVELS WITH GEORGE.

Along the way you met some interesting people and heard many stories about George Washington.  What are a few things that surprised you?
Like most people, I’d grown up with an image of Washington as staid and remote—a great leader but hardly the kind of person you’d want to hang out with.  But just about everywhere we went we learned about a very different George Washington.  In Oyster Bay, Long Island, a local historian showed us where Washington, who was over six feet two inches tall, got off his horse and helped raise one of the rafters of the town’s one-room school house—a story that was still being told a hundred years after his visit.  In Hampton Plantation in South Carolina, we saw the huge live oak tree that the home’s owner had planned to cut down until Washington insisted that the tree should stay where it was, even though it was right in front of the house’s new porch.  Today the tree is still standing—a living, if somewhat awkwardly placed tribute to Washington’s intervention on the oak’s behalf.  In North Carolina’s Old Salem Museums and Gardens, I accompanied a fifth-grade class on a tour of the tavern where Washington (the former commander of the Continental army) enjoyed being serenaded by a brass band composed of Moravian pacifists.  By the time we returned to Nantucket, a whole new Washington had emerged—not the general or the president or the plantation owner but the human being, the traveler.

I’m guessing a trip like this took quite a bit of research and preparation.  How did you go about planning this trip and what was the process like
Melissa and I took out a map of the Eastern Seaboard and began to plot our journey.  Washington visited more than a hundred different towns, and before setting out, I contacted as many of the towns’ libraries and historical societies as I could identify.  I wanted to know what traces—besides historical plaques and the claim “Washington slept here”—were left of his journey.  Soon I was receiving pages from local histories, journals, diaries, letters, and newspaper clippings.  In many towns, the archivist or librarian volunteered to show us around, ultimately climbing aboard our Honda Pilot and pointing out the houses in which Washington stayed, the trees to which he tied his horse.  While I focused on the history side, scheduling interviews along the way, Melissa served as our navigator, not only getting us to each stop on time, but also finding us parks and trails to walk Dora—not to mention each night’s dog-friendly accommodation.  There were plenty of surprises along the way, but somehow, we were able to stay on schedule.

If someone were to replicate what you did—at least in part—what would you recommend in terms of stops to gain the greatest understanding of what Washington experienced and learned?
Washington’s New England and Southern tours lend themselves especially well to fun, history-themed vacations.  I’d recommend first consulting the terrific maps that appear in the book drawn by Jeffrey Ward, then taking a look at my acknowledgments.  I’ve listed the towns (and the people who helped us) in the order that we visited them.  When it comes to the New England tour, you’ve got to stop at what was Mrs. Haviland’s tavern (now the Square House Museum) in Rye, New York; at the Sun tavern in Fairfield, Connecticut; and the town green in New Haven.  Once you reach Hartford, then it’s a matter of following the towns along the Connecticut River to Springfield.  Although it wasn’t on Washington’s tour, Sturbridge Village provides a wonderful glimpse into the history and culture of New England at that time.  Worcester, Boston, Marblehead, Salem, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire, are must-sees, but Washington’s return route through the Northeastern Corner of Connecticut was one of our favorite parts of the tour.  The Southern tour was not only much longer, it had an entirely different feel—especially the backroads approaching Charleston, South Carolina—with Georgetown and Hampton Plantation being highlights, and then the meandering backroads from Charleston to Savannah.  The return through Augusta, Columbia, Camden, and Salisbury was just as interesting, and be sure to spend a good portion of the day visiting the historic Moravian village at Old Salem.  If you live in the New York area, I’d highly recommend spending a long weekend following Washington’s Long Island tour.  Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore is fantastic as is the town of Setauket, which served as America’s spy capital during the Revolution.  Then there is Roslyn, home to the Hendricks tavern, where Washington enjoyed a breakfast of roasted clams and which now features the George Bar, a kind of shrine to our first president.

What do you want the reader to take away from reading TRAVELS WITH GEORGE?
I’d like the reader to see how far Washington traveled—not just during his tour of America but throughout his lifetime.  This was a man who became a slave owner through inheritance at the age of eleven years old.  By the end of his life he’d determined to free his enslaved workers and was quoted as saying that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”  Washington’s one, overriding belief was in the Union, the same belief that would lead Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation during the Civil War.  No, Washington was not perfect, by any means (his remorseless pursuit of Martha’s enslaved servant Ona Judge to Portsmouth was particularly shameful), but he did demonstrate the ability to question the assumptions with which he had grown up—a rare characteristic in any age.  If he never entirely freed himself from those assumptions, he nonetheless played a crucial role in establishing a country that, despite all its failings, continues to aspire to live up to the principle with which it began—that all of us are created equal.

What’s next?
I’m turning my attention to the California Gold Rush.  In fact, Melissa and I just returned from our first Gold Rush research trip.  We flew into Kansas City, rented a car, and with the help of the printed guides published by the National Park Service followed the trail from St. Joseph, Missouri, through the states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and California to Sacramento.  We covered 2,700 miles in 12 days.  Now I’m trying to figure out how I’m going to follow the route of those who got to California by sea.  Perhaps a sail around Cape Horn is in order.  We’ll see!