You may not believe it, but George Washington is bigger than Elvis. Graceland attracts over 500,000 visitors a year. Mount Vernon? A million a year. And that’s not counting the dogs, because, I’m happy to report, the grounds of Mount Vernon are dog-friendly.
On an afternoon in late summer 2018, my wife, Melissa, our dog, Dora, and I were standing on the grass next to Washington’s famous home. The air was hot and sticky and Dora, being a furry red Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever (toller for short), was not enjoying herself. She could see the Potomac at the bottom of the hill and wanted desperately to go for a swim. But I was pretty sure they were serious about the “No Swimming” sign at the river’s edge.
We were about to begin what would prove to be a year-and-a-half-long odyssey as we followed Washington’s travels as president. By retracing his journey across the country as he attempted to bring the American people together, I hoped to gain some historical perspective on our own politically divided times.
I’d gotten the idea for this quest the year before during a trip to Providence, when I first saw John Brown’s horse-drawn chariot. I couldn’t believe how tiny it was: think the back seat of a VW Bug mounted on four skinny wheels. With a carriage like this, the 57-year-old Washington, whose health had begun to suffer almost as soon as he was sworn in, had saved both his country and himself by exchanging the confines of his presidential office for the boundless promise of the open road.
When he became president, Washington was still wrestling with the meaning of the American Revolution. He’d entered the conflict an unrepentant Virginia slaveholder. By the end of the war, a new Washington was gradually emerging, one who realized that “nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”
Love him or hate him, to ignore Washington is to ignore the complicated beginnings of the United States. We cannot remake our country’s past, but we can learn from it, and all of us still have a lot to learn from George Washington. Yes, I would follow him across 13 states and see what I discovered along the way.
But I didn’t want to go it alone, I wanted my wife to come along. A former attorney, Melissa was about to retire from her second career as the executive director of a Nantucket nonprofit. And since we’d recently acquired Dora, we would, like John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, bring our dog. Whether or not Dora was going to be helpful in striking up a conversation with a stranger, she was guaranteed to make the trip a lot livelier.
Just six months after taking office in the temporary capital of New York in 1789, Washington embarked on a tour of New England. He was fascinated by experimental plows and intricate timepieces and knew that the only way America was going to end its dependence on British imports was by creating its own technological revolution. Former colonies of farmers would have to become a nation of mills and factories, and New England was already emerging as the tech capital of 18th-century America. Most promising of the half-dozen mills Washington visited on the tour was the windmill-driven factory in Boston producing card combs — the wire hand brushes used to prepare wool or cotton for spinning into yarn. The factory employed 900 people and produced 63,000 card combs a year.
Melissa and I decided to see for ourselves the realities of textile manufacturing by visiting Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum that re-creates life in New England in the 1830s. Our first stop was the textile exhibit at the Fenno House. A hand loom and spinning wheel competed for space on the first floor. Then it was on to the carding mill, the water-powered wheel of revolving cylinders that eventually superseded the hand cards. It took 10 hours for a person using two hand cards to work a pound of wool; a carding mill run by the miller and an assistant processed the same amount in 10 minutes.
There was one state Washington refused to visit during his New England tour: Rhode Island, which had so far refused to ratify the Constitution. When his presidential entourage rode into Worcester, the local artillery company fired five times for the states of New England: “three for the three in the union — one for Vermont, which will speedily be admitted — and one as a call for Rhode Island to be ready before it be too late.” This was exactly the message Washington hoped to deliver. That night he stayed at a tavern in Weston.
Melissa and I couldn’t find a place to stay in Weston, but we did find a hotel just 9 miles away in Lexington, where, in Washington’s words, “the first blood in the dispute with Great Britain was drawn.” The town green was too crowded to let Dora off the leash. A few blocks away Melissa and I found a park and let her go. We soon found her churning up the surface of a stagnant, cattail-fringed mud puddle covered with green slime. How were we going to get her into our hotel room in this condition?
The hotel advertised as pet-friendly, but Melissa thought our best option was for me to take Dora around to the back entrance. Our room proved to be so unrelentingly white that you needed sunglasses. The coverlet on the king-sized bed looked like an untouched field of snow. Dora bolted and jumped onto the bed. Ignoring our cries, she danced back and forth across the coverlet, her bushy tail flinging scales of dried muck. Then she rolled over and started wiggling with a manic glee.
We left the next morning with our heads hanging low and a significant tip on the dresser.
Washington had to wait for more than an hour on the Cambridge Green for the Middlesex Militia, which arrived late. Making the delay all the more annoying was the realization that Massachusetts Governor John Hancock was not going to be attending. Apparently the governor, who suffered from gout, was not feeling well. Because Hancock had not deigned to inform Washington beforehand (and had been well enough just the day before to invite the president to dinner), it was hard not to see the governor’s absence as a snub.
Once Washington had reviewed the thousand or so militia assembled on the Cambridge Green, he and his entourage, which now included Vice President John Adams, crossed the Charles River to Roxbury. Boston at that time was an island of just over 1 square mile, connected to Roxbury by a thin sliver of land known as the Neck. On his left would have been the Back Bay — not a neighborhood, but an inlet dotted with sails and lined with small manufactories; on his right would have been the South Bay, now an MBTA stop but then a wide body of water that opened into Boston Harbor, where the many ships were dressed with signal flags for the big day.
The road into Boston from the Neck had been renamed Washington Street just the year before the president’s arrival. The route would take him past the site of the famed Liberty Tree (chopped up for firewood by the British during the Siege of Boston); the Old South Meeting House, where a reputed 5,000 people gathered in the hours before the Boston Tea Party in 1773; and finally to the State House, where the young architect Charles Bulfinch had designed a kind of presidential welcome center from which Washington was to review the festivities. An extra 6,000 people had jammed into Boston to see Washington, swelling the crowd to an estimated 24,000.
Dressed in his general’s uniform from the Revolutionary War, Washington rode on his white charger into the city to thunderous acclaim. After viewing a parade in which the members of 50 different guilds marched past, Washington returned to his room and notified Governor Hancock that he would not be attending dinner at his house that afternoon. With Hancock a no-show that morning, Washington was not about to honor the governor with his presence. Hancock later made amends, but Washington had made it unmistakably clear that a president outranked a state governor — something that seems almost ludicrously obvious today, but only because Washington had refused to accept Hancock’s invitation to dinner.
On October 29, at 8 a.m., Washington stepped into his carriage to continue his journey north to Salem and eventually Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Melissa, Dora, and I did our best to follow his route, taking the old road up the coast from Boston to Salem. It was during this drive that we began to see how the towns fit together. These were not autonomous settlements; they were part of an organic whole as Route 1/1A invariably became each town’s Main Street. By following Washington, we were retracing the ancient umbilical cord of Colonial New England.
Even though it took him 4 miles out of his way, Washington made sure to visit Marblehead. He owed the town a lot. At the beginning of the war, during the Siege of Boston, Washington had chartered a schooner owned by Marblehead’s John Glover and turned it into a privateer, marking, some have claimed, the beginning of the American Navy. Soon after, Glover formed the 14th Continental Regiment, comprising largely cod fishermen from Marblehead, 600 of whom served in the war. These were the men who made possible the December 26 victory at Trenton by transporting Washington’s small army across the icy Delaware River.
In Ipswich, we stopped for a lunch of fried clams at the Clam Box. In the 18th century, Ipswich was known not for its clams but for its pillow lace. Before lace became mass-produced in the 1820s, pillow lace represented the pinnacle of fashion, with a yard equal in value to a cord of wood or 16 pounds of wool. At the time of Washington’s visit, there were 600 lace makers in Ipswich, an incredible number in a town of only 601 households. Before leaving town, Washington purchased some black silk pillow lace for his wife, Martha, which she used to trim a cape that is still a part of the collections at Mount Vernon.
It wasn’t until the following winter that Melissa, Dora, and I began retracing Washington’s return route through New England, heading out from Portsmouth. After stops in Exeter, New Hampshire; Haverhill (the most “beautiful” place Washington had so far seen); and Andover (where, like Washington, we toured Phillips Academy, founded in 1778), we pulled into a Homewood Suites by Hilton in Billerica.
It was bitterly cold the next morning as we walked Dora in a snow-covered patch of forest behind the hotel. It was probably the most unspectacular section of woods we’d ever ventured into, but it contained something special: a cellar hole beside a rock with a polished marble plaque. This was where the Amos Wyman House had once stood. Here, between two parking lots, was where Samuel Adams and John Hancock hid from British soldiers during the day and night of the Lexington and Concord battles, before they headed to Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress. History lurks in the most unlikely places.
In May 1790, more than a year after Washington’s inauguration, Rhode Island finally ratified the Constitution — the last of the 13 states to do so. On what seems to have been the spur of the moment, Washington decided to hop on a schooner and sail from New York to Newport and Providence. It would prove to be an inspired move, turning some of the harshest critics of the new government into some of its biggest fans.
Walking the streets of Newport today, you can’t help but marvel at the wonderful collection of historic homes. The truth is many, if not most, of these homes were built with profits associated with slavery. It’s been estimated that 60 percent of the slave-trading voyages launched from North America originated in Rhode Island; in some years it was as high as 90 percent. When Washington visited Newport, the slave trade had been outlawed for three years, but that appears to have had no effect; Newport’s biggest year in slave trading was 1807, 20 years after the supposed ban.
By the time of Washington’s presidential visit, Providence had begun to eclipse Newport as the state’s commercial center. My father, now 92, was born in Providence and lived in a house that is now part of Brown University. Washington had spent considerable time at Brown (then known as Rhode Island College) during his 1790 visit, so I figured there was no time like the present to visit the campus with my father. He was riding shotgun, and Melissa and Dora shared the back seat.
We exited the highway and were soon on South Main Street, with the steep 200-foot-high hill of the East Side on our right and downtown Providence on our left. In the 18th century, what is now a wide plain of asphalt was a natural inlet deep enough that vessels of considerable size could sail along the west side of Main Street.
Even before Washington’s schooner had been secured to the dock, Rhode Island’s governor, Arthur Fenner, had leaped aboard so he could be the first to pay his respects to the president. Rhode Island might have been the last of the original 13 states to join the Union, but its governor was no John Hancock.
Washington was preparing for bed at the Golden Ball Inn on Benefit Street when there was a knock on the door. The students at Rhode Island College had a request. They had illuminated all 146 windows of the college’s single building, known as the Edifice, with candles in the president’s honor and wondered whether he might come take a look. On that wet, dark night in August 1790, when Washington crested the hill and saw the college ablaze with light, he witnessed a spectacle that has been repeated many times since. Every commencement week, the lights go on in the windows of what is now called University Hall, just as they did in Washington’s honor.
By the beginning of the 21st century, Brown’s commencements were being overseen by the Ivy League’s first Black president, Ruth Simmons. In 2003, Simmons commissioned a study to investigate the university’s link to slavery. Its findings, published in a document titled Slavery and Justice, set a precedent that many colleges and universities have followed since.
Rhode Island’s farmers and merchants provided slave-holding plantation owners in the Caribbean and the Southern states with beef, butter, hay, horses, candles, salt cod, barrel hoops and staves, timber, and shoes. Other Rhode Islanders were in the rum distillery business, purchasing slave-produced sugar and molasses from the Caribbean and distilling it into the rum that was then used to trade for slaves in Africa. More than any other Northern state, Rhode Island served as, in the words of the Slavery and Justice report, “the commissary of the Atlantic plantation complex.”
One of the recommendations of the Slavery and Justice project had been to create “a living site of memory, inviting reflection and fresh discovery, without provoking paralysis or shame.” It was here, in the quiet part of campus, that we found the university’s Slavery Memorial by artist Martin Puryear. We all studied the sculpture: a buried ball and chain. The top link of the chain was broken in half and finished with silver mirrors that reflected the sky above, an apparent expression of hope attached to the buried legacy of slavery.
I later took a walking tour of 18th-century Providence with a volunteer at the Rhode Island Historical Society, a former postman named Scott Alexander. At the Market House near where Washington disembarked, he showed me where there had once been an auction block. “The Brown study changed everything,” Alexander said. “It broke the ice.”
That’s just it, I think. History doesn’t sit still, frozen on its pedestal like a statue. It’s ongoing; it’s dynamic; it keeps breaking ice.
We would later retrace the longest journey of them all — Washington’s three-month tour of the South that took him all the way to Savannah, Georgia, and back to Philadelphia, the new temporary capital. Our own journey ended with a memorable carriage ride through the streets of that city’s historic district, with Dora sitting between us, staring ahead with a toller’s earnest intensity.
On May 20, 2019, we rode the ferry back home to Nantucket through the fog. Melissa and I talked about our journey and about George Washington. “He’s still a mystery to me,” Melissa said. “We followed him every step of the way, but what was he really thinking? He doesn’t say much at all in his diary.”
“There must have been within [Washington],” the poet William Carlos Williams writes in In the American Grain, “a great country whose wild paths he alone knew and explored in secret and at his leisure.” This, I think, is the essence of Washington’s hidden, surreptitious self. Washington gave his country so much, but he was determined to keep his innermost thoughts to himself. It’s not surprising that Martha, who knew him best, burned their letters after his death.
Even in his own time, George Washington courted more controversy than most are taught in their American history survey courses. His belief in a strong federal government and his endorsement of the fiscal policies promulgated by his financial secretary, Alexander Hamilton, ultimately inspired a backlash led by his own secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, who wanted the states to retain more authority and power. Partisanship had been born, and, by the end of his second term, Washington was deeply embittered by the political divisions that threatened to destroy the country. And yet, because of what he’d accomplished during the first years of his presidency — both in the executive mansion and on the road — he’d established a government that was built to last.
Nathaniel Philbrick is the National Book Award-winning author of In the Heart of the Sea, Mayflower, and Bunker Hill. This story is adapted from his forthcoming Travels with George, by Nathaniel Philbrick, to be published by Viking on September 14, 2021. Copyright © by Nathaniel Philbrick. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.