These are troubling and rancorous times. Every day there seems to be another headline about the country’s ever-widening political divide. And it’s not just Democrat versus Republican. Within each party the gulf between the extremes is growing as progressives shout angrily at centrists and Donald Trump’s faithful refuse to tolerate the slightest deviation from his ironbound party line. The word “unprecedented” is often used to describe the level of combative partisanship that has gripped the nation.
And yet, despite all the fury and dissent, a bipartisan infrastructure bill somehow made its way through the Senate. Is President Biden justified in saying that the way forward is through dialogue and compromise? If George Washington were magically transported to today, I’m confident he would say something like, “Yes, but don’t set your hopes too high.”
Washington also had to deal with a partisan divide at the beginning of his presidency in 1789. There were no formal parties, but the ratification of the Constitution had divided the American people into two distinct (and today eerily familiar) factions: those who embraced the strong national government the Constitution created (the Federalists) and those who distrusted the notion of a centralized government superseding the powers of the states (the Anti-Federalists).
It could be argued that the only reason the Constitution was ultimately ratified by the nine states required for a national election was that no matter what a person believed about the merits of the new government, just about everyone could agree on the person to lead it: the 57-year-old Revolutionary War hero George Washington. That said, two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, had refused to ratify the Constitution by the time of Washington’s inauguration in New York City.
Early on in his presidency, Washington realized he needed to do something to appeal to all Americans — no matter on which side of the political fence they stood. Instead of proposing an infrastructure bill, Washington decided to hit the road. In an age before mass media made the president virtually omnipresent, Washington believed that he needed to go out and visit as many of the country’s towns and cities as possible.
Once Congress went into recess that fall, he embarked on the first of a series of presidential journeys “in order,” as he put it, “to become better acquainted with principal characters and internal circumstance, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might” provide “useful information and advice on political subjects.”
Over the next two years, Washington ventured as far north as Kittery Point, Maine, and as far south as Savannah, Ga. He traveled by horse-drawn carriage, and just about everywhere he went he was greeted by large enthusiastic crowds. People began to realize they were now part of something bigger than their town or state or political faction; they were part of the Union. As a newspaper in Salem, Mass., reported, the appearance of the president “unites all hearts and all voices in his favor.”
Today the phrase “Washington slept here” is a historical joke, but during the two years of intermittent travel at the beginning of his presidency, all those nights spent in taverns and homes across the country were essential to establishing an enduring Union.
And yet, even as Washington did everything in his power to pull the American people together, his own secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, was secretly working to coordinate the political opposition. While Washington was in the final stages of his three-month southern tour, Jefferson, with his fellow Virginian James Madison as a traveling companion, embarked on a tour of New York and the new state of Vermont, during which they met with like-minded Anti-Federalists who began organizing what would become the Republican Party (not to be confused with today’s party of the same name).
As virtual warfare began to erupt within his cabinet between Jefferson and the Treasury secretary, Alexander Hamilton, Washington lamented that “men of abilities — zealous patriots — having the same general objects in view … will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another.” The genie of partisanship had been let out of the bottle, and by the end of his second term the venomous and highly personal infighting had reached a point that makes today’s political culture look downright civil by comparison. If not even Washington could reach across the partisan divide, what hope is there for us now?
By 1815, with the implosion of the Federalist Party during the War of 1812, the fires of political discord had finally begun to burn themselves out. The newly elected Republican president, James Monroe, who had once been the fiercest of political partisans and one of Washington’s harshest critics, now billed himself as the ultimate conciliator, claiming that “the chief magistrate of the country ought not to be head of a party, but of the nation itself.” And what did Monroe decide to do? Just like Washington had done 28 years before, he hit the road.
Once again, huge crowds greeted the president’s arrival in every city and town. In Boston, the newspaper editor Benjamin Russell, who as a young reporter had witnessed President Washington’s arrival in 1789, claimed that Monroe’s own presidential appearance heralded an “era of good feelings” — a phrase that has since come to define Monroe’s presidency. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Washington had thoroughly won over one of his most strident political enemies. The party that had once looked to Washington as its standard-bearer was no more, but the republic he had striven so mightily to establish was still around. After decades of bare-knuckle political combat, after yet another war with Britain, the Union had endured.
Yes, today there is the Delta variant, the catastrophic exit from Afghanistan, the challenges at the southern border and the climate crisis. But perhaps with broad support for an infrastructure bill that touches the lives of just about every American there is a way to recapture even a small measure of the gratitude once felt in this country when the president came to town.
Nathaniel Philbrick is the author of three books about George Washington, including the forthcoming “Travels With George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy.” His book “In the Heart of the Sea, the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2000.