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Washington and Monroe touring Savannah

In Savannah the other day, as I tried to walk around enough to get a sense of the flavor of the place, I ended up rather surprised to see the extent to which President George Washington’s Southern Tour (which included a visit to Savannah) has a continuing visibility there.  In looking into it, I discovered that in his first term Washington toured to try to suture together the nation politically and to reinforce the case that he was truly responsive to all the former colonies; thus, in 1789 he toured New England, in 1790 an eastern tour, and in 1791 a visit to the south (thus eventually visiting all thirteen states).  Given Savannah’s status as a major seaport, I had expected to find that Washington would have traveled by boat up and down the eastern coast for these tours but found, to the contrary, that he toured by carriage, keeping a journal along the way that is in wide circulation today.

Jürgen Habermas argued in his early Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that the enlightenment can be seen in part as transforming the way in which political power is negotiated.  Before the enlightenment, Habermas argues, political power was displayed – sovereign power was a spectacle of marching armies and royal regalia and courtly deference.  But as the enlightenment rolled across the European continent, political power had to be justified, argued for, deliberated.  The Southern Tour reveals in an interesting way how Washington was doing a little of both as he traveled.  His stated purposes were deliberative; that is, his point was to consult political constituencies along the way.  One of the early commentators on the trip, Archibald Henderson (who edited Washington’s journals for a 1923 edition), has explained the purpose of this travel by saying that Washington was essentially keeping his ear to the ground.  By contrast, GW himself wished to “make the states a nation, …stir the people out of their pettiness as colonists and provincials, and give them a national character and spirit.”

Washington returned to the new capital reassured that the nation was strongly supportive of the new constitution.  Writing in his third journal, he said with evident satisfaction that “tranquility reigns among the people… They begin to feel the good effects of equal laws and equal protection…  Each day’s experience of the Government of the United States seems to confirm its establishment and to render it more popular.”  An American “public sphere” was arguably coalescing given these activities and also the emergence of a national newspaper culture.

But the trip was spectacle too, something we easily forget in a day and age when presidents travel widely and almost constantly when they are not otherwise available for inspection through the mass media.  Half a century ago presidential tours were still uncommon enough to get a lot of national press attention – to use another Georgia reference, recall the weirdly negative coverage Dwight Eisenhower got for taking golfing vacations down to Augusta (the press saw these trips as emblematic of Eisenhower’s disengaged style, an impression much undermined by presidential historians in the the 1980’s and afterward).  But two centuries ago, as the historian Fletcher Green has noted, “of the fifteen men who occupied the president’s office between 1789 and 1861 only four – George Washington, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, and John Tyler – made formal and official tours of the country.  Such an event in those days was not only a rare, but also a great, occasion.”

Washington was feted everywhere he went, and as today’s Savannah historical plaques recall, his visit and its symbolic import was long remembered.  As Thomas Baker, a National Park Service historian, has put it, “In cities like Wilmington, Charleston, and Savannah he was received royally with cannon salutes, fulsome welcoming addresses, lavish dinners and gala balls, following which he invariably made careful diary notes of the number of ladies who had danced in his honor.”  GW was typically welcomed by delegations organized by Revolutionary War veterans, and so his travel also commemorated his great recollected military triumphs.  Reaching Charleston, Washington was greeted by a male chorus singing:  “He comes!  He comes!  The hero comes.  Sound, sound your trumpets, beat your drums, From port to port let cannons roar, His welcome to our friendly shore.”  And at Savannah, his southernmost stop, Washington was rowed into the city by “nine American captains dressed in light blue silk jackets, black satin breeches, white silk stockings and round hats with black ribbons having the words in gold letters: ‘Long Live the President.’”  Washington was a little embarrassed at the effusive welcome but also rather loved it too.

Subsequent presidential tours made very different impressions but relied on the same logic.  The nation was soon sectionalized by partisan divides (such as the famous disagreements between Hamilton and Jefferson), and the national administrations of Adams, Jefferson, and Madison would have found it hard to achieve nonpartisan unity by travel.  By the time James Monroe visited Savannah many years later, though, having declared his intention to reunify the country, his purpose was designed to signal growing American unity by calling attention to its military singleness of purpose – his was a tour dominated by military base inspections and naval christenings but the appeals to national unity were explicit and strong.

Southerners were thrilled to welcome Monroe, by all accounts, and in Savannah he christened a ship named for the city, the first steamboat to cross the Atlantic (the Savannah stopped at Liverpool, Stockholm, St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, and ended its tour in Norway).  Monroe was the first president to ever ride on a steamship.  While in Savannah he made the William Scarbrough home his southern White House; today the wholly restored property includes a gorgeous garden and a maritime history museum open to the public.

Just one year after the tour, in 1820, another ship was christened the Savannah, this one equipped as an American battleship and constructed at the huge Brooklyn shipyard; the next battleship Savannah was constructed in 1862 as a Confederate ironclad.

By the time of Andrew Jackson’s tour, this time of New England, the purpose of presidential travel was explicitly partisan, and the days of genteel welcome and presidential power displayed had already begun to run its historical course.

SOURCES:  T.H. Breen, “The Bumpy Road to a New Republic,” New York Times, 8 April 2008; Fletcher Green, “On Tour With President Jackson,” New England Quarterly 36.2 (June 1963), p. 209.  For information on early American newspaper culture, cf., Charles Steffen, “Newspapers for Free:  The Economies of Newspaper Circulation in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic 23 (Fall 2003), pgs. 381-419.


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