Book Review: George Washington’s Journey
by T. H. Breen
Simon & Schuster, 2016
Historian T. H. Breen has managed the minor miracle of writing a book about George Washington that, although hagiographic, isn’t toweringly maddening. His subject is an interesting one, too: the tours that President Washington took of the new country in his first term, two of New England – in the autumn of 1789 and the late summer of 1790 – and of the South from March to July of 1791.
During the war, Washington had a predictably scathing view of the common folk for whose liberation he was fighting. In this he wasn’t much different from most of the Founding Fathers, who had a healthy distrust of mobs and a clear-eyed estimation of the benefits of education. Breen views Washington’s decision to undergo the grueling, primitive roads of colonial America as a demonstration that he’d changed his thinking, and he pitches it high, as all Washington writers inevitably do:
Indeed, as anyone who studies Washington closely soon discovers, one of the man’s most admirable qualities was his willingness to reassess impressions formed at an earlier time. Unlike many political leaders, he was not afraid to change his mind on the basis of more accurate information.
But such hymn-book notes are, amazingly, rare in George Washington’s Journey. Instead, Breen digs into his sources and tells the story of those alleged goodwill tours in wonderfully readable detail – a better and bigger account of them than I can remember reading anywhere else. It’s true that Washington himself is still a plaster-cast saint from start to finish (if there’s more than a whisper in Breen’s book of any financial motivation the Commander in Chief might have had for taking his tours, I certainly didn’t catch it), but the events around him and his remarkable public gestures are dramatized with a wonderfully good ear for the best anecdotes, as when Breen writes about the hoopla that accompanied Washington’s visit to Boston in the chilly, damp October of 1789:
A few privileged spectators watched Washington from windows located in buildings opposite the Massachusetts State House, where the President was expected to review the entire parade. These were the best seats available. Convenience, of course, came at a cost. Just as with modern forms of entertainment, the most desirable locations “were let for a very good price.” But even for people willing to spend money on the celebration, it was a long day. Many had taken up viewing positions early in the morning, and despite the inhospitable weather, they remained in viewing positions until at least four in the afternoon, when it was getting dark.
Even for hearty Bostonians, sitting through the entire procession of workers and dignitaries was an ordeal. The damp and the chill took a toll. Within a few days, large numbers of people came down with colds, which they termed, in honor of the moment, “the Washington cold.”
Breen makes some gestures toward the soaring, over-arching meaning of those goodwill tours, how they helped to bind the new country together, but thankfully, our author is such a natural storyteller that when he gets ahold of a good story – such as the delightfully petty rivalry-in-foppishness between Washington and John Hancock – he tends to abandon hagiography in favor of rattling good yarns. Would that more Washington books followed suit.