“Travels with George” started as a lark of an idea: traveling the country to retrace President George Washington’s 1789 journey through the ex-colonies.
It turned into something much more pressing for author Nathaniel Philbrick. His latest book, which he’ll be discussing at the Albany Book Festival next week, is a travelogue that delves into the life and legacy of the nation’s first president, as well as the insidious legacy of slavery.
Published earlier this month, it comes at a time when the country is wrestling with the legacy of its founding fathers and other historical figures, struggling to reconcile the past and the present.
Yet, when Philbrick, who has been writing history-centered books for years, first started the journey, these discussions were only just becoming a part of the national discourse. By the end of his journey and while he was writing the book during the pandemic, much had changed.
“It really felt like so many of the things we experienced on the road were just about to explode as I was writing it,” Philbrick said. “This was not the lark – following a former president – that I was thinking about three years ago. This was something that was like a vector into the soul of who we are as a nation.”
For the Nantucket author, the book is a follow-up to a trilogy about the American Revolution that he’s written, including “Bunker Hill,” “Valiant Ambition” and “In the Hurricane’s Eye.”
“What really made me kind of excited about the whole concept of this book was that the prospect of getting on the road,” Philbrick said. “I had spent the last 25 years writing heavily researched books that I’m either in my office or at the archives but in any event, I’m not really getting out and seeing the world . . . I was still fascinated by George Washington after writing about the Revolution that I just wanted to see what happened to him next so this appealed.”
Philbrick took the trip with his wife Melissa and their dog Dora (a red Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever) charting much the same path as Washington traveled after his inauguration in 1789.
As Philbrick notes, Washington wasn’t keen on being president and had hoped to enjoy a private life at his Mount Vernon home.
“He had spent a stressful eight years winning the Revolution. That was no cakewalk and he and Martha thought ‘Hey, it’s time to retire.’ But there really was no one else who could have succeeded in uniting the country the way he did and he knew it and he really had no alternative,” Philbrick said. “But he went for it. He was one of these guys, if he did something, even if he wasn’t that excited about doing it he did it to the full.”
Traveling from what’s now called Maine to Georgia with a small group of people (including enslaved staff members), Washington greeted citizens and insisted on staying in taverns. When he arrived in any given town, he would often get out of his carriage and ride in on a white horse.
“Washington . . . insisted on staying in public taverns which were flea-infested, [had] horrible beds, terrible food. And in two instances he was denied entry because they didn’t recognize who he was. So he’s trying to prove he’s a man of the people but it was hard work,” Philbrick said.
During his visit to Long Island, he thanked the people who’d worked as his spies during the Revolutionary War. As is documented in a historic plaque in Oyster Bay, a one-room schoolhouse was being built as Washington came through and he stepped down from his horse to help workers put up one of the rafters.
The latter was one of the most memorable stops on the journey for Philbrick, who acknowledges the admirable aspects of Washington while refusing to shy away from the disreputable aspects of the president’s legacy. Though Washington freed some slaves at the time of his death, “. . . he remained a slaveholder himself for the rest of his life. A struggle was being waged inside Washington between his ideological aspirations and his financial and familial commitment to slavery at Mount Vernon,” Philbrick writes.”
Throughout his travels, the author journeys to Newport, Rhode Island, the seat of the slave trade, to the Confederate monuments in Richmond, Virginia and the scene of a slave auction in Savannah, Georgia. He finds that the legacy of slavery is encased in every town and city, haunting not only the past but the present.
Early on in the book, he addresses Washington’s infamous dentures, which were made up of a conglomerate of ivory as well as animal and human teeth. They’re on display at Mount Vernon’s estate museum.
“Call me crazy, but I think Washington’s dentures, which could very well include the teeth of some of his enslaved workers, are not a bad metaphor for this country: all our anxiety, despair, embarrassment, rage, racism, fear, laughter, horror and hope ingeniously cobbled together into a contraption once clamped between the jaws of our first president,” Philbrick writes.
He’ll be in conversation with Paul Grondahl as part of the Albany Book Festival on Saturday, Sep. 25 in the Campus Center West Auditorium from 10:30-11:30 a.m. Other featured authors are Elizabeth Brundage, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Setsuko and Simon Winchester and others. For more information visit albanybookfestival.com.
Electric City connections
While Philbrick spent most of his childhood in Pittsburgh, he and his family spent one year in Niskayuna while his father taught at Union College. During that time, Philbrick attended Rosendale Elementary.
“We were only there a year but my brother and I have such fond memories of Niskayuna, Schenectady, we were in a neighborhood where there was a golf course and we really didn’t want to go back to Pittsburgh because we really liked it so much,” Philbrick said.
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