Democracy on Parade
Warren L. Bingham, author of the book George Washington’s 1791 Southern Tour, takes an in-depth look at Washington's effort to unify the new nation.
Mount Vernon is privately owned and will remain open in the case of a government shutdown.
President George Washington coordinated a journey to the southern states between March 21 and June 4, 1791. During his tour, Washington emphasized national unity, familiarized himself with political sentiments in the region, and learned about the geography and economic production in the lower South.
Not long after George Washington became President in April 1789, he contemplated a tour of every region of the United States. However, the duties of office and the care of Mount Vernon delayed a trip to the South until the spring of 1791. Washington left Philadelphia on March 21, 1791 to avoid "the warm and sickly months" of the lower southern states.1 His itinerary targeted towns and cities along the eastern seaboard, from Maryland to Savannah, Georgia with a return journey that followed a western route from Augusta, Georgia back to Virginia. Washington estimated that the journey would take slightly more than three months and cover over 1700 miles.
Washington's arrival in the various towns composing the tour created crowds of excited admirers. Municipalities designed welcoming receptions that usually consisted of mounted escorts, speeches, public gatherings, dinners, balls, or special celebrations. Civic leaders proudly showed off the accomplishments of their towns and insisted the President visit any remaining remnants of Revolutionary battlefields. Parents eagerly brought their children to see the President because, as William Blount of North Carolina wrote, "'such another Man will not again appear in their day.'"2
The citizens of some towns outdid themselves. In Wilmington, North Carolina, Washington received a triple federal salute when four guns fired three rounds of fifteen shots. The leading citizens of Charleston, South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia led festive water parades to greet the President and arranged impressive panoramic views of their cities. The Moravian town of Salem, North Carolina, serenaded Washington with songs played by some of the community's most accompanied musicians.
Washington's tour also focused on political issues, and the President took an active interest in the South's economic potential. He sought to cement North Carolina's recent admittance into the Union. The President also desired information about southerners' response to the recent tax on domestically-produced spirits. In Georgia, Washington discussed the issue of fugitive slaves to Spanish Florida with Governor Edward Telfair. Several Catawba chiefs in South Carolina insisted upon an impromptu meeting with the President to discuss their concerns about their treaty rights.
Throughout his journey, Washington listed the agricultural products of each area. He noted the locations where active shipping ports and harbors operated, the existence of good river navigation, and where it could be improved. He took delight in the manufacturing skills of the artisans at Salem, North Carolina. Although Washington did not think much of the flat, coastal plain and pine barrens of the lower South, he praised the agricultural potential of higher-elevated lands.
Washington experienced his share of difficulties during the trip. The President expected to stay at public houses rather than with private families. But Washington quickly discovered that long distances and miscalculations frequently forced a revision of his plans. Once, Washington mistook a private home in Craven County, North Carolina for a public house. He deplored the poor roads in general and the sandy conditions of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Washington concluded his tour on June 4th when he re-entered Virginia. He viewed his excursion as a success and confidently wrote in his diary, "The manners of the people, . . . , were orderly and Civil. And they appeared to be happy, contented and satisfied" with the federal government.3
Carol Ebel, Ph.D.
The Papers of George Washington
The Diaries of George Washington, eds. Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1979.
Henderson, Archibald. Washington's Southern Tour. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1923.
Lipscomb, Terry W. South Carolina in 1791: George Washington’s Southern Tour. Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1993.
The Papers of George Washington, Presidential Series, Vol. 7, ed. Dorothy Twohig. Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1998.