Book review: George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation by T. H. Breen (Simon & Schuster, 2016).
George Washington’s standing as the Revolutionary Era’s “indispensable man” is virtually unchallenged. Veteran historian T.H. Breen’s new study of Washington’s tours during his first term of office can only add to that assessment. Rather than simple good will journeys, Breen convincingly argues that Washington’s tours of New England and the South were key elements in his campaign to bind the American populace to the ideal of the union and the recently installed Constitutional government.
Washington believed the new nation remained fragile, and faced threats in the form of factionalism, demagoguery and entrenched state sovereignty. His overarching concern was the preservation of the union, and the authority of the central government without which neither national prosperity nor individual liberty would be secure. Though he viewed the ratification of the Constitution as an important first step in establishing an effective national government, the new chief executive understood that survival depended on gaining the trust and allegiance of the populace.
Washington’s journey as president-elect from Mount Vernon to the capital in New York City in 1789 brought home the importance of public support. In ceremonies formal and spontaneous, throngs of well-wishers turned out to see and cheer him as the personification of the nation and national government. Washington was struck that so many of the those who turned out to welcome him – women, propertyless men, and workers – had no vote, but were yet determined to add their voices to public life. Discounting their opinions, needs and interests would be unwise in a system based on consent of the governed. Sooner than many national leaders, Washington grasped that he was witnessing the birth of a new, distinctly democratic, American political culture, in which public opinion was a powerful, potentially decisive force. He became convinced that unless the government and the people forged an emotional bond beyond documents and systems, the future of the country would be jeopardized. As Breen explains, Washington understood that only he, who had become the “physical embodiment of the entire nation,” could cement that bond.
Washington’s two major journeys through the new country, first to New England in 1789, and then across the south in 1791, sprang from this understanding. Through these trips, Washington intended to open a conversation with as many Americans as possible, including those of modest socio-economic rank. He hoped to gain insight into their thinking – their hopes and expectations for the country – while he sought to convince them of the importance and benefits of the union and newly ratified Constitution.
Washington was also pioneering the basics of a republican political culture, presenting himself and his office in a dignified, authoritative manner without appearing in any way monarchical. Though he often wore a civilian suit of clothes, he soon learned that the public wished to see him in his general’s uniform. Washington gave them what they wanted. As he approached a new town he would halt the coach in which he did most of his travelling, change into his uniform, and mount a splendid white charger on which he entered his destination looking every bit the impressive victor of the Revolution. Breen rightly describes this as political theatre, and it can be argued that no one has played it better.
Washington declined to stay in private residences, believing that it would be too great a financial imposition on the hosts, and potentially lead to some expectation of later favor. Consequently, he and his entourage, largely slaves, spent their nights in the taverns and inns of late eighteenth century America. In the “trip advisor” comments he wrote in his diary, the president rated them mostly indifferent or plain bad, with those in the south inferior to the north.
But staying in local inns had its advantages. It brought him into closer contact with a wider variety of his fellow countrymen. “He may not have enjoyed staying with wagon drivers and poor families in search of a better life,” Breen concludes, “but unlike many modern political leaders who speak for the people, he knew first-hand how they lived.”
Throughout his journeys, the president took pains to promote manufacturing and economic improvement, whether at a struggling woolen mill near Hartford or at Richmond where he approvingly monitored the progress of the Kanawha canal which was intended to link the Tidewater with the Ohio River. For Washington, successful integration of the western territories with the coastal states was essential, to both prosperity and union. The president, as Breen notes, recognized that “political loyalty always comes down to economic interests.”
Washington lent his authority to more than economic advancement. A visit to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, gave him the opportunity to emphasize the new nation’s commitment to religious liberty. Drawing on Locke, the Declaration of Independence, and the new Constitution, he described religious freedom as a natural right which the government guaranteed it to all good citizens.
Not all was positive and comforting. Politicians in the south voiced suspicions of Hamilton’s economic policy which they felt favored the north. Letters from the capital kept him informed of the growing divisions in his own cabinet, disagreements which would coalesce in the form of the first two political parties.
The shadow of slavery also fell across his path. Breen relates Washington’s involvement in a duplicitous plan to keep control of over a favored slave, the cook who was part of the president’s household in the temporary capital of Philadelphia. This entailed thwarting a Pennsylvania law which freed slaves after six months’ residence in the state. His actions in the matter were uncharacteristic of the man who set such a high value on his honor, and, as Breen contends, it was telling that slavery was the issue which led Washington to tell a lie.
Overall, Washington was pleased with his tours. He found the overwhelming majority of the population was contented, and supportive of the new government. Moreover, he had every reason to be satisfied that he had fulfilled his duty to cement the people to their government, and combat the elements threating to fragment the nation. During his second term in office he would have cause to wonder if those forces were again ascendant.
T.H.Breen is a noted authority on early American history, and his contributions have been widely acclaimed. His writing is, as always, fluid and vivid, resting on a foundation of deep research and the assurance accumulated through decades of study. With verve and grace, Breen restores the importance of these innovative goodwill trips to their rightful place in our understanding of the politics – and evolving political culture – of the new republic. Readers will find George Washington’s Journey as illuminating as it is enjoyable.