As the familiar story goes, George Washington, the Revolutionary War’s iconic general, led the Colonies to an improbable victory over the crushing British monarchy and its oppressive taxation. But according to Nathaniel Philbrick in Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy, Washington’s real challenges as a leader began after that. With abolitionists to the north, enslavers to the south and anti-Federalists everywhere (even in his own Cabinet), Washington set out just months after his 1789 inauguration on an uncomfortable, arduous tour of the shaky new union he felt compelled to unite.
In the late summer of 2018, in a time hardly less politically fraught, Philbrick, his wife and their “red bushy-tailed Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever,” Dora, embarked from Washington’s Mount Vernon to follow in the former president’s footsteps. Inspired by Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck—who wrote, “We do not take a trip; a trip takes us”—Philbrick expected “a journey of quirky and lighthearted adventure” that instead “proved more unsettling and more unexpected than I ever could have imagined.”
Visiting the cities Washington once rode through on his white horse, or paraded through in a cream-colored carriage with two enslaved postillions, or strode into wearing a simple brown suit (the new president had a feel for political theater), Philbrick delivers the details. He explains how Washington became “the father of the American mule,” debunks myths about the first president’s wooden teeth and enriches facts with help from local archivists, librarians, curators, docents and even the descendants of those who were there. But Philbrick keeps one foot in, and a respectful perspective on, the present throughout, assessing hazards then—such as when Washington’s horses fell off a ferry—and now—such as when Philbrick’s own sailboat nearly capsized in a vicious storm on his way to Newport, Rhode Island.
When BookPage interviewed Philbrick in 2006 for Mayflower, his Pulitzer Prize history finalist, he said, “I think it’s really important that we see the past as a lived past rather than something that was fated to be.” With Travels With George, he succeeds again at this aim. Washington emerges as the complicated, flawed but no less heroic leader that his newborn country desperately needed. The quantity and quality of the details Philbrick gathers as he straddles past and present make this an extraordinary read.