It was a cold wintry day in Holliston when Nathaniel Philbrick climbed atop the lower edge of the Balancing Rock, a precariously perched “ancient, lichen-covered boulder” in Middlesex County. Accompanied by his wife, Melissa, and town historian, Joanne, he attempted, as George Washington had exactly 230 years earlier, to push it off its mount. He pushed, but the rock didn’t move. This is an apt metaphor, perhaps, for what Philbrick seeks to do in “Travels with George,” which is to lift George Washington from his “natural pedestal” and onto level ground where we can greet him eye to eye, engaging not with the decorated general and politician, but with the man.
The book is a departure from the third-person narratives in much of Philbrick’s previous works like the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Mayflower” and National Book Award-winning “In the Hurricane’s Eye.” Here a close first-person voice — intimate and reflective — excavates a remarkably underdiscussed section of Washington’s life — the post-Revolutionary War presidential tour he took from 1789 to 1791. To engage fully with Washington’s odyssey, Philbrick himself took the same expedition from autumn 2018 to winter 2019, mirroring Washington’s first complete survey of the 13 colonies.
Philbrick begins his parallel journey as an upbeat road trip into the past, “George Washington is bigger than Elvis,” he exclaims with glee. Upon first visiting the grounds of Washington’s home he is “happy to report that the grounds of Mount Vernon are dog friendly” to accommodate his trusty retriever, Dora.
“Travel was essential to George Washington,” Philbrick writes, “[he] liked nothing more than to be out there and seeing the world.” Still, a painfully reluctant leader, this particular journey was one Washington actually “did not want to make.” To him, it marked the abrupt end to “all expectations of private happiness in this world… My countrymen will expect too much from me… I feel an insuperable diffidence in my own abilities,” a vulnerable Washington confessed, “[I have] a mind oppressed with more anxious and painful sensations than I have words to express.” Philbrick’s imagery of Washington traveling long distances by horse and carriage over narrow dirt roads through mud, rain, and America’s untouched forests reveals the fragile and delicate infrastructure of a new world.
An experienced historian of the late 18th century, Philbrick is selective with his empathy. In one breath, he admires Washington’s remarkable leadership under pressure despite regular bouts of anxiety. The next, he elaborates on the “cold pocket of horror” within Washington, the plantation-owning man who “had an enslaved house servant whipped for repeatedly walking across the freshly planted lawn at Mount Vernon” days before he left for the Constitutional Convention. “Old assumptions about the country’s history — that slavery was simply an unfortunate footnote to an otherwise unblemished story of freedom and prosperity — have proven inadequate and downright harmful,” he writes. The Washingtonian legacy, Philbrick argues, is a hall of mirrors for all Americans — a reflection of both the nation’s highest ideals and its basest realities.
Philbrick’s strongest descriptive moments arrive when juxtaposing grander welcome displays in state capitals, with humble offerings from small towns that suffered greatly from the war. Marblehead, a town of 5,000 back then, was left with 459 widows and 865 orphans. On the day Washington arrived, the owner of the only mansion in town “did her best to show a brave face, pasting paper cut outs of eagles on the panes of the front windows ‘silhouetted against the flames of welcoming candles,’” he writes. As a work of travel journalism Philbrick is at his best when comparing, in fine detail, the topographical differences between 1789 America and 2018 America. A former sailing journalist, Philbrick commits bodies of water to memory. Like his beautifully worded passages from “Second Wind” and “Sea of Glory” extolling the virtues of the sea, marshes, creeks, rivers, and estuaries are carefully logged: “Even before we turned, I could see a wide tidal marsh on my right, which excited me… It also looked just like the Creeks on Nantucket — the tidal marsh a quarter mile from our house to which I’ve been drawn ever since we moved to the island.”
Reminiscent of Philbrick’s critical offering, “Why Read Moby-Dick?,” here the author compares Washington’s moments of pridefulness with Captain Ahab’s; “all effective leaders have a bit of the Ahab in them,” he suggests. However, unlike Melville in “Moby-Dick,” who firmly establishes Ishmael as the narrator and Ahab as the protagonist, in “Travels with George” Philbrick is both the protagonist — speaking in the first-person throughout—and the omniscient narrator observing Washington from a distance. It’s a neat track, one that shows off Philbrick’s considerable narrative skills.
As the growing investigation into America’s founding fathers marches on, one leaves “Travels with George” feeling enthused by Washington’s fortitude, reflective about his deep moral failings, and filled, perhaps, with nostalgic optimism. This book is quintessential Philbrick — a lively, courageous, and masterful achievement.
Harmony Difo is a journalist, critic, and member of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians. She can be reached at www.harmonydifo.com.
Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy
Viking, 400 pages, $30