When George Washington Came To New Hampshire

Jan 23, 2016

The cover of George Washington's Journey by T.H. Breen.

Plenty of would-be presidents are criss-crossing New Hampshire these days, each hoping he or she will be the one moving into the White House next January.

But plenty of sitting presidents have made their way through this state as well, going all the way back to the first one.

T.H. Breen is an award-winning historian and author of the new book, George Washington's Journey: The President Forges A New NationHe joined Weekend Edition to talk about the book and Washington's time in New England.

What was Washington trying to accomplish with these travels, which took him to every state in the Union?

Washington had come out of the American Revolution very fearful that the major danger facing our country was fragmentation - by states, by region - and that was one of the reasons why he came out of retirement, with great reluctance, to become president.

The trip was designed entirely by him - it was not suggested by any of his Cabinet members - as a way of persuading the American people, from Georgia all the way up to New Hampshire, that they were part of a larger polity, [that] if they supported the Union they could realize a greater level of prosperity and security than they could by concentrating on their own states or localities. At that time, the group of states that was most worried about being part of the United States was the New England states, not the Southern states as many people might imagine. 

George Washington had a famous - I suppose some would say - infamous dinner party with the governor of Massachusetts, John Hancock, who insisted that in a state, the governor outranked the president. It became a kind of dinner party etiquette about whether Washington would go to Hancock's house, or Hancock would go to visit George Washington when he was in Boston. But in fact, to Washington, it made a lot of difference. He just waited in his little house until the governor backed down and said, no, I'm sorry, I agree the president of the United States outranks a governor.

These were all precedents - Washington sensed that if he got the script wrong, future presidents would be in a bad way. 

Those precedents carried through even to things like how he would travel into a town and how a town would receive a president.

Absolutely. Washington was a master of what you and I would think of as political theater. He was a very accomplished showman. When he set off on this trip, he thought, look, I'm not head of the Continental Army anymore, I'm just president. He wore a proper business suit. But the people would have none of it. They wanted to see him dressed as the leader of the Revolutionary Army. So when he got to a little town, he would stop maybe a few miles outside the town, go to the baggage cart, get into the military regalia... he had special white horses, chargers that were used in battle, and he would ride into town, General Washington has arrived. But it was all an effort to bring attention to the new regime. 

In addition to traveling to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for several days, Washington brought a New Hampshire man on the trip with him - Tobias Lear grew up in Portsmouth. What was he like?

Tobias Lear is a very interesting figure. When he came out of college he was too young to have had experience fighting in the Revolution, but he was very bright and very earnest, and he had a way with figures. For some time he handled the household finances of the Washington family and won the trust not only of George but of Martha Washington, too. 

On this trip, at least on major parts of the trip, Tobias traveled with Washington, and later, when he was married and the capital of the United States, they lived in what was then the White House. They were very, very close. 

Washington had some wonderful experiences in New Hampshire. He loved his stay in Portsmouth - they put on a grand parade for him. That was the start of what we think of [as] really terrific political parades. I suspect there were as many marchers as there were spectators.

The cumulatives effect of that visit to Portsmouth and his travels through New England - did that assuage any of his concerns about the New England states and their concerns over the future of the country? 

It did. What he found in New England that pleased him was what we might think of as the first seeds of industrialization in Connecticut and Hartford and up around Boston. He visited textile factories; he saw that these entrepreneurial efforts were going to free the new country from reliance on European imports. He had a strong sense that our independence wouldn't be secured as long as were economically dependents on foreign powers. So he came up through New England, and I think the industrial experimentation really impressed him.

You retraced Washington's journey physically; you traveled the roads and places he traveled. What was that like?

Terrific. I'm a research scholar, I taught in a university and most of my work is with newspapers and documents. But this was a chance to get out in the field, and I drove - or I tried to drive - the same roads that Washington drove. Sometimes the numbers had changed, sometimes the roads had been erased. In some areas I would find a building that Washington allegedly stayed in and I found that in fact it had been moved at least two, sometimes three, times since Washington's stay. The whole physical landscape of America turned out to be fluid, as people tried to save houses by moving them or storms moved them for them. My trip was both historical and a little bit archaeological.

We occasionally get visits from sitting presidents here, and certainly people who would like to be president. It's interesting to think that the way those events unfold today in 2016 have roots in 1789.

Absolutely. Certainly the issues about which Washington felt most strongly, and that was, we are one nation, that we should stick together and try to avoid the kind of debilitating fragmentation, [which] I think are as much issues today.

Folks that, for right or wrong, celebrate states' rights - they can do what they want but they certainly can't look to Washington for much inspiration. His goal was to keep the strength and the unity of our country.