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This article originally appeared in Mount Vernon magazine, published three times a year by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association.
Newly elected president George Washington, aware that he was the singular unifying figure in America, set out to visit the new nation.
By Warren L. Bingham
As the calendar turned to spring and the frozen roads of southeastern Pennsylvania thawed, President George Washington departed his Philadelphia residence at 190 High Street on March 21, 1791. But the president wasn’t just leaving on errands or to make a local call—he wouldn’t return home until July 6. President Washington was departing on his Southern Tour, a formal visit to Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
The journey was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but, rather the last in a series of trips meant to satisfy a desire Washington stated in his letter to Vice President John Adams in May of 1789, shortly after the duo assumed office. In musing about the role of the president, Washington wondered,
Whether, during the recess of Congress, it would not be advantageous to the interests of the Union for the President to make the tour of the United States, in order to become better acquainted with their principal characters and internal circumstances, as well as to be more accessible to numbers of well-informed persons, who might give him useful informations and advices on political subjects.
Washington was shrewd; his tours were an excellent political device. He was well aware of his popularity and influence with Americans, and he knew his presence in the states would benefit national unification. No one could better promote the federal government and the newly ratified Constitution than the hero of the American Revolution.
Remarkably, by the fall of 1790, after only 17 months in office, Washington had made ceremonial visits to nine of the 13 states. Only the South, including his native Virginia, remained on his itinerary. As 1790 closed, southern leaders anxiously awaited word if the first president would call on them in the year ahead. Edward Rutledge of Charleston, South Carolina, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a veteran of the American Revolution, wrote the president in November, “I have lately received letters from some of my friends in Congress, which give me reason to hope that the time is not far distant when we will have the happiness of seeing you in this state.”
Indeed, in January 1791, Washington committed to going south that spring—if Congress adjourned by early March. The prudent and practical president wanted to start his trip by mid-March in order to visit Georgia and low country South Carolina ahead of the “warm and sickly” months.
Washington liked details. He was a planner who liked to know exactly where he was going. Hence, he worked closely with his secretaries in making the travel arrangements for the Southern Tour and consulted with southern friends who knew the ways of travel. Gentlemen, those with business in various places—such as judges, elected officials, and clergy—made most of the round trips and repetitious travel during this era. Settlers, on the other hand, were trying to reach a destination and remain there. For mutual benefit, gentlemen shared information on distances, where to cross bodies of water, and the availability and the quality of inns and taverns.
By far, the most affluent and influential southern city was Charleston, South Carolina. Accordingly, it was the focus of the Southern Tour. With a population exceeding 16,000, the low country port was the nation’s fourth largest city. Washington devised his line-of-march to give a representative visit through the South, but a major goal was to get to Charleston. The president had many supporters there who also supported the new Constitution and the stronger central federal government that accompanied it.
In finalizing his itinerary, Washington chose to make his way through the South by the “lower road,” a route that took him along the region’s geographic fall line and through the coastal plain. On his return trip, he would travel over higher ground, the Piedmont, or central regions of the Carolinas and Virginia. This challenging journey, covering long distances over terrible roads, would require sturdy horses and reliable equipment—along with a few good men.
Washington chose William Jackson, one of his Philadelphia secretaries, to escort him. Jackson, a South Carolinian and Washington’s secretary during the Constitutional Convention, had accompanied the president on all of his travels through the states. A veteran of the Revolutionary War who rose to the rank of major, Jackson was well-suited for the long trip; he was only 32, healthy, and single—and he knew the South.
In addition to Jackson, the president selected seven other attendants from his Philadelphia house, including two slaves, Giles and Paris, who would be in charge of the baggage wagon and extra horses.
Washington opted to use his personal coach, a fancy high-riding, four-wheel, enclosed vehicle. The white coach, which Washington dubbed a “chariot,” was re-tooled and checked out thoroughly by the Clark Brothers of Philadelphia, America’s premier coach-makers, prior to departure. In all, the traveling party consisted of nine men, a coach pulled by four brown horses, a baggage wagon pulled by two brown horses, and five saddle horses, including Washington’s tall white charger, Prescott.
Congress adjourned in early March, allowing Washington a timely launch of his big trip south. However, the legislators gave him additional baggage for the journey when they passed the first-ever federal tax on a domestic product—a tax on distilled beverages. While the president was in agreement with the tax, he was interested to see how it would be received in the South.
Washington kept a daily diary during the Southern Tour. On March 21, he recorded, “Left Philadelphia about 11 o’clock to make a tour through the Southern States ... roads exceedingly deep, heavy & cut in places by the carriages which used them.” Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of War Henry Knox were among the well-wishers assembled as their boss and his retinue rolled out of Center City Philadelphia; they escorted the entourage out of town. Martha Washington had endured the rigors of life in several Revolutionary War camps, but the president felt it impractical and unnecessarily demanding for his wife to join him on this journey. Martha remained in Philadelphia, attended to by presidential secretary Tobias Lear.
The travelers made their way through parts of Delaware and Maryland before settling for a few days at George Town, Maryland, where Washington had important and productive meetings that advanced the effort to establish the nation’s capital there on the banks of the Potomac River.
After George Town, the president was no doubt pleased to arrive at Mount Vernon, where he spent a week catching up on correspondence and visiting his farms. Washington was able to visit his beloved estate only 12 times during his eight years as president—two of those visits came as he passed it on the outward and return legs of the Southern Tour.
On April 7, Washington wrote that the horses were refreshed as the entourage left Mount Vernon for Dumfries and Fredericksburg. The horses had hardly broken a sweat, however, before calamity came down upon the entourage as it crossed Occoquan Creek. While traversing the creek via ferry, one of the coach horses—still in some fashion tethered to the coach—got spooked and went overboard. Then the three other horses took the plunge, but, miraculously, the coach didn’t go overboard, and all of the horses either swam or were guided to shore by Washington’s attendants or those on shore who took to the water in boats to aid in the rescue.
In Dumfries, Virginia’s oldest chartered town, Washington perhaps calmed his nerves when he took tea with a niece, Mildred Washington Lee. Other family members were also part of the Southern Tour. The president lodged with his sister, Betty Washington Lewis, in Fredericksburg and with a cousin, William Washington, at Sandy Hill Plantation, south of Charleston.
"Le Port de Fredericsbourg dans l'Amerique," Joseph Vernet (New York Public Library)
Washington’s passage through Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Petersburg were typical and representative of how larger communities received and celebrated Washington. Parades, cannon salutes, proclamations and addresses, concerts, dances, community lightings, and lavish dinners with a multitude of toasts were often on the agenda. Masons, members of the Society of the Cincinnati, and elected officials were prominent in these occasions. However, Washington would, at times, connect with the average citizen when he walked or rode horseback through a community.
The travelers pressed on through North Carolina. Washington endured a nice but at times tepid reception in Halifax, the home of Willie Jones, an eccentric but highly regarded Anti-Federalist leader. In Tarboro, the president was more appreciative of the bridge over the Tar River than he was the artillery salute offered by the local militia’s only cannon. Crossing water was hard, so Washington admired bridges—and he also admired pomp and ceremony. In New Bern, then the state’s largest town, the president enjoyed two nights in “exceedingly good lodgings.”
Washington was a keen observer, and he enjoyed learning about agriculture and commerce along the route. In eastern North Carolina, he was awed by the vast longleaf pine forests, where he learned about the tar, pitch, and turpentine industries—and took close note of the commerce on the rivers. After surviving stays at a couple of rustic rural inns, the president arrived in Wilmington on Easter Sunday, but apparently didn’t make it to church. But on other Sundays he did attend services, even going twice one Sunday in Charleston.
The travelers followed the South Carolina coast, even riding about 30 miles down present-day Myrtle Beach, then known as Long Bay. Washington learned about rice and indigo agriculture and saw vegetation in this subtropical region that perhaps he had seen only on his teenage trip to Barbados.
Arriving in Charleston on May 2, the president spent a week, meeting with a variety of people, attending social occasions from small to large, visiting an orphanage and Revolutionary War sites, and wandering the city on the back of Prescott. He even climbed the steeple of St. Michael’s Church where he enjoyed a bird’s eye view of the city.
Charleston, SC in 1780, engraving (New York Public Library)
One unexpected stroke to Washington’s ego came from the prominent ladies of the Palmetto City. Concerned that they wouldn’t have enough time with the president, they organized and paid a visit to Washington at the Church Street townhouse provided for his use by the city. Since most of his time with women while on the tour came at teas and dances, he was taken by surprise and gushed, “Was visited about 2 o’clock by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston—the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced and it was as flattering as it was singular.”
In Georgia, Washington visited General Nathanael Greene’s widow at her Savannah plantation. From Savannah, the group struggled to travel uphill through sandy and loose soil to reach the Georgia capital, Augusta. There the president met with Governor Edward Telfair. During this trip, Washington met with the governor of each southern state.
"Vue du port de Savanah dans l'Amerique," Joseph Vernet (New York Public Library)
When he turned north from Augusta on May 21, Washington had satisfied his desire to visit the thirteen states. There were fewer major cities on the road north, but the caravan was able to take in the communities of the Piedmont as it wound its way home, including the state capital, Columbia. After a visit to Camden, the president agreed to meet with Catawba Indian leaders in upstate South Carolina, near present-day Rock Hill. The Native Americans voiced concerns that white settlers were encroaching on lands reserved for their tribe during the colonial era.
On his return to North Carolina, Washington wrote that Charlotte was a “trifling place,” but he was pleased to be in a region of firm red soil and out of the sandy and loose soils to the south that made the going rough for his horses. After stops in Salisbury and the Moravian settlement of Salem, the entourage rolled north through lightly populated southside Virginia. Virginia Congressman Isaac Coles hosted the president for two nights at his Halifax County estate; the Coles family still has the bed in which the first president slept. As Washington’s horses took advantage of Coles’s green pastures, the president was pleased as he reflected on how southern leaders generally offered favorable sentiments toward the federal government and even the new distilled alcohol tax.
When Washington arrived back at Mount Vernon on June 12, the Southern Tour was all but over. His interests and commitment to a scheduled second visit to George Town, Maryland, delayed his return to Philadelphia. But Washington’s second visit to the federal city site was productive and historic, as the community accepted the idea of the nation’s capital coming there. Landowners agreed to cooperate by selling the necessary parcels, and Washington, channeling his experience as a surveyor, even helped select the sites of the Capitol and the president’s home, the place we now call the White House.
The mucky roads of March had turned to dust by the time Washington arrived in Philadelphia on July 6. Church bells tolled and cannons roared to announce the cavalcade’s arrival. The Southern Tour was a remarkable physical feat in that it covered nearly 1,900 miles—and other than a couple of scary water crossings and minor delays due to lame horses—without incident. Washington was able to stick to his itinerary, and, blessedly, nothing of national urgency occurred in his absence. The long trip proved to be a successful calculated risk.
George Washington’s presence in the South and in all of the states during his first term as president did much to establish American unity. In writing about the Southern Tour in the 1920s, Archibald Henderson of North Carolina called Washington’s travels, “Democracy on Parade.” Today, the Southern Tour is commemorated via dozens of historical markers and occasional reenactments. In the Carolinas and Georgia, there is local lore galore about George Washington’s only visit south of Virginia.
Warren L. Bingham is a speaker, broadcaster, writer, and the author of George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour from The History Press. Bingham is the creator of Carolina Color, radio vignettes offering a historical perspective on North Carolina people, places, products, and events.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Mount Vernon magazine. Subscribe to the magazine by becoming a member today.Learn More