Review of T.H. Breen, “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation”

Last night I attended the penultimate presentation in the American Antiquarian Society’s Spring 2016 Public Programs series, T.H. Breen’s examination of “George Washington’s Journey to the Nation,” a lecture cosponsored by the Franklin M. Loew Lecture Series at Becker College. Breen recently published George Washington’s Journey: The President Forges a New Nation (2016). I have not yet had a chance to read this book; I offer here a review and reactions to the lecture presented in Antiquarian Hall.

May 20 - George Washington's Journey
George Washington’s Journey

In his opening remarks, Breen commented that he particularly enjoys making presentations about his books because doing so gives him opportunities to share “all the wonderful aspects of the book.” Public lectures allow him to set the record straight in the wake of reviewers who misinterpret or miss the point of his work. What follows here may or may not miss the point, in Breen’s estimation, but it does seek to engage with the narrative he presented.

In researching George Washington’s Journey, Breen set out to trace a series of trips that the nation’s first president undertook during the first two years of his first term in office, journeys to all thirteen of the original states, from Georgia to the Maine frontier (then still part of Massachusetts), between 1789 and 1791. Washington made these journeys, Breen contended, as a means of bringing the federal government to “the people.” To a greater degree than other founders, according to Breen, Washington realized that the new republic would succeed or fail based on the attitudes of the people, the masses that were still organizing their thoughts about the meaning of the Revolution and attempting to figure out what they wanted the new nation to be. Washington realized that common men had replaced the quiet deference that existed before the Revolution with new modes of interacting in everyday life and raucous participation in local politics. All too often the focus was too local, privileging the needs of the individual states over the nation as a whole. More than once Breen reminded the audience that Washington favored a stronger federal government as a means of strengthening the nation, an aspect of the drafting, ratification, and implementation of the Constitution that all too many of the devotees of the founders seem unaware. Republican government was an experiment, one that Washington (as well as others in the founding generation) feared could fail. Washington worried for the economic stability and military security of the new nation. This made his journeys to the states – to the people – imperative. He understood “that the threads that bound the American people to a single political identity were fragile and untested.” To knit those threads together, he took the federal government to the people, in the form of his own person, to help those overly fixated on local interests realize that the nation amounted to more than the sum of its parts.

Breen made convincing arguments about the purpose and effects of Washington’s journeys, but I couldn’t help but feel that he overstated his case. A significant undercurrent that ran throughout his lecture could be summed up by the subtitle of his book: The President Forges a New Nation. (Yes, I understand that publishers, rather than the historians who write the books, often craft the titles in order to appeal to broad audiences. That being said, Breen’s presentation embraced the general sentiment of that subtitle.) Breen told a story in which the fate of the nation depended on a single individual, suggesting that without Washington’s itinerary through cities, towns, and villages in each of the states that the people in those separate states would not have coalesced as a unified nation. I question to what extent the president alone forged the new nation. I do not disagree that Washington’s journeys played an important role in knitting together geographically distant constituencies that had their own interests. I’ll incorporate this aspect of Washington’s presidency into the coursework and classroom discussion the next time I teach my course on the Era of the American Revolution and the Constitution.

Yet Washington did not singlehandedly unify the new nation. A variety of people, events, and factors also played significant parts in the process, including merchants, shopkeepers, artisans, authors, artists, and printers who promoted patriotic and nationalist consumer and visual cultures in the 1780s and 1790s. I do not object to acknowledging the purpose of Washington’s journeys throughout the nation, but I am cautious when doing so skates right up to hagiographical depictions of the first president by suggesting the survival and success of the republican experiment could be traced back exclusively to a single cause, one insightful leader who engaged with and made himself accessible to the people.

Breen stated that the Washington who made these journeys was a Washington that most people, even the most ardent fans of the first president, probably do not know. When considering the constellation of founders that served in Washington’s administration, the president sometimes recedes into the background. He was genial, but not usually depicted as a particularly daring risk taker or bold innovator when considered in the company of his more intellectual peers, especially Jefferson and Hamilton. Not as comfortable interacting with others in social situations as those men, Washington often seemed awkward in comparison and lacking their charm, despite his general amiability. The Washington who made himself accessible to the people, who made a point of traveling to visit them in their own towns, who insisted on staying in public inns (Washington slept here!) rather than secluding himself in the homes of the local elite and powerful, who interacted with men, women, and children throughout the nation, is a Washington perhaps unfamiliar to most Americans. Washington was a man among the people, not just a man of the people.

Yes, this may be a new Washington that historians and the public may not have previously encountered, but the overall tone of Breen’s presentation – all the superlatives concerning the first president and his intentions for undertaking his journeys – does little to shift general perceptions of Washington. Overall, Breen seemed to reify Washington as exceptional and extraordinary. Certainly it must be possible to recognize Washington as the gifted and effective leader that he was, to honor his achievements and contributions to the nation, without implying that his actions were the only (or even the most important) factor in unifying the new nation. Breen tells an important and powerful story, but it is a story that would benefit from more context. It needs to be situated within other narratives and interpretations of the politics and culture of the first decades of the new American republic.