George Washington's Journey: The President Forges a New Nation.

Author:Levy, Philip
Position:Book review

George 'Washington's Journey: The President Forges a New Nation. By T. H. Breen. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016. 320 pp.

T. H. Breen has some very clear and well-stated goals in his new study of George Washington's northern and southern tours undertaken at the start of his presidency. Breen sees in these trips a model of the openness, accessibility, and receptiveness that should be the hallmarks of successful democracies. He portrays a Washington eager to see firsthand just how well his government is faring in the eyes and hearts of the people--as a more genteel, dignified, liveried-slave-attended, coach-bound or white-horse-mounted version of Mayor Ed Koch's catchphrase, "How'm I doing?" Breen is also particularly interested in locating these trips within the then-still-very-much-new-and-unformed rituals of republican government. What is the correct title with which to address a president? What are the protocols for who sits where in a presidential coach? Where should a presidential traveling party stay at night to minimize imposition and possible social slights? These questions make a leitmotif in a book that, as with the traveling Washington himself, moves from place to addressing new concerns along the way. But at its core, these questions constitute a rich discussion of the forms and meanings of democratic culture just as constitutional government was coming into being, and Breen sees Washington as a skillful, careful, and thoughtful ringmaster in orchestrating and calming what easily could have become an unruly factional circus.

Partly in the tradition of monarchical visits, trade parades, militia displays, and even rogation marches, and partly by unique inspiration, Washington undertook three separate journeys to see and be seen, to listen and to be heard. The first of these, in 1789, followed his inauguration and took him northward through New England--skipping Rhode Island, though, which, by then, had not yet ratified the Constitution. Only after that state signed on did Washington make his second trip in 1790 to see its sites and people. Breen shows these two trips to have been filled with citizens, artists, and grandees eager to bedeck their bridges with banner and leafy bough, flood their streets with candlelight, and generally fete "his Excellency" in a spirit of republican public mindedness. Washington was never quite at home with small talk and prolonged mass socializing, and many of the tributes verged on the...

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