As George Washington—military hero, federal advocate, and Virginia aristocrat—prepared to travel north to New York to take up the presidency, he made a decision. In letter after letter throughout 1789, he politely laid out two policies: He would not accept personal petitions for government office, and he would not, when traveling, stay in any private home to which he was invited.
Although Washington framed the former decision in terms of politics, the latter was expressed more in terms of etiquette; he did not wish to “incommode any private family” with his necessary retinue. In fact, however, these two decisions were intrinsically linked. Both stemmed from Washington’s preoccupation with determining what a president should be.
The Constitution lays out the responsibilities of the president; what their role is in the government and what it is not. What the Constitution did not determine is the etiquette of the presidency; not what a president should do, but how they should live their lives. Washington, already the greatest celebrity in the early United States, was used to living his life in public, but he was about to start doing so on an unprecedented level. Washington gave himself the task of setting that precedent, of deciding on and living out proper presidential behavior.
In letters from his early presidency, Washington repeatedly asks confidantes—John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay in particular—for advice on the minutest details of presidential life. At what times of day should his wife entertain visitors? Where should he deliver addresses to the legislature, and they to him? In his diary entry for his first annual address to Congress he notes not only who was present but in what order they entered, when they rose and sat. Washington even notes that he had chosen his matching white horses and a suit made at Hartford. These precise details of daily life, Washington realized, were as important to building the new nation as the content of his speech.
Washington planned his presidential travel with these questions of etiquette in mind. He decided very early in his presidency that he would make two significant trips, one to New England and one to the South. His diaries make clear that a major goal of his visits was to find out just what sort of country he was now leading—what was the land like, the manufacturing, the churches? How had American communities been damaged from the war and how were they recovering? But his purpose also was to let Americans know just what sort of leader they had elected—again and again, hundreds of people turned up in every town to get an idea of the first President.
Staying only in inns and public houses served both of these goals. Washington was constructing a president who was a gentleman, who did not inconvenience anyone, but who was also a man of the people, who would be satisfied with the ordinary traveler’s food and bed. He was eager, as well, to prove his impartiality, by not favoring any one citizen with the president in their home, and to reward American entrepreneurship by paying a fair fee to the businessmen and -women who provided his meals and lodgings. But staying at inns also allowed Washington to examine the state of the infrastructure for traveling in the new federal Republic, an enormous place that Washington desperately wanted to draw into a cohesive whole. Inns could be an important technology in that process, and by staying in them Washington could assess their readiness and encourage their development.
It was a perfect strategy. The only problem was, he hated it.
Washington’s first several diary references to lodgings are positive. Even as he complains about the roads, he feels happy with the places available to sleep and eat. The farther he gets from New York, however, the faster that changes. On November 5, 1789, he “lodged… in the House of a Widow Coolidge near the Bridge, and a very indifferent one it is.”
From here forward, Washington brutally reviews tavern after tavern. Jacob’s, in Thompson, is “not a good House” off an “intolerable bad Road.” Major Marvin’s is “not a good House, though the People of it were disposed to do all they cou’d.” At Taft’s, “the people were obliging, the entertainment was not very inviting,” though oddly Washington later sent presents to the proprietor’s daughters, so apparently he ended up with good memories of the place.
The frequency of these snippy little reviews each time Washington travels conjures up an image of a modern Washington on his computer, lowering the Yelp stars of every business he comes across. In the rural South there was not “a single house which has anythg. of an elegant appearance,” and when traveling through there in April 1791 he made sure to record the inferior quality of each one he stayed at. It’s easy to imagine Washington taking to the internet to warn us of Mr. Allan’s “very indifferent house without stabling” or of the disappointment of each of the three different taverns he breakfasted, suppered, and slept at on April 23rd.
Washington was equally eager, of course, to record a good travel experience. Mrs. Haviland “keeps a very neat and decent Inn” at Rye, though sadly, Webb’s was “not equal in appearance or reality.” In Boston the Widow Ingersoll’s was “very decent and a good House,” enough so that he entertained John Hancock and John Adams there. The Buck Tavern in Delaware was at least “a better house than the appearances indicate,” though that may be damning with faint praise.
Inns were not the only travel experiences Washington commented on. A botanical garden at Long Island “did not answer [his] expectations—The shrubs were trifling and the flowers not numerous,” and the town only “shewed… what respect they could.” On November 8, 1789, he not only stayed at Perkins’ Tavern “which by the bye is not a good one” but at church “heard very lame discourses from a Mr. Pond.” Whole towns were subjected to Washington’s scathing asides. Charlotte, he tells us, is “a very trifling place,” while Marblehead “has the appearance of antiquity. The Houses are old—the streets dirty—and the common people not very clean.” As for the roads he traveled on, he felt compelled to note on November 12, 1789, that “The badness of these Rds. having been described as I went, I shall say nothing of them now.”
While these “reviews” are quick, it’s clear they held major importance for Washington. His diaries are terse in general, sometimes including nothing but the weather and which guests came to dinner. While traveling, he is more expansive, but mainly takes careful note of where and how he was received, and what economic activity he observes. The Yelp-esque summations of his travails on the road are some of the few places a personal opinion makes it into the pages of his succinct diary.
Other travelers in the early republic complained of difficulties on the roads. Thomas Franklin Pleasants, in 1814, stayed at a “bad house, [with] uncivil landlady,” while Jeremiah Fitch in 1820 found a tavern at Albany “as poor in every respect” as the “poor and dirty” town market. For the most part, however, travelers of this period stuck much closer to the beaten track than Washington did.
The historian Thomas Weiss explains that tourism was relatively rare in the early republic, with most travelers undertaking only short journeys for economic reasons. While Washington’s travels were certainly purposeful, they were in many ways more similar to tourism than these trips to market. Weiss suggests that tourists travel with the specific goal of seeing things, and this was one of Washington’s major objectives in taking such a wide-ranging route. Most eighteenth-century tourists, however, stuck to popular locations, such as the waters at Saratoga, where they were sure of a good reception. James Morrell in 1813 has nothing but praise for the hotels in Saratoga and the inns he stays at along the journey there.
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Washington’s trips, however, took him to far more utilitarian lodgings. According to the historian Wilhelmus Bryan, a typical licensing law of the period required taverns, usually built as ordinary houses, to provide only “three featherbeds and stabling for six horses.” We know from Washington’s diaries that the places he stayed sometimes did not even furnish these bare requirements, indicating they existed under looser restrictions or simply were unlicensed. This lack of oversight is unsurprising given the rural areas Washington visited and the governmental turmoil of the time. However, it means that, unlike the spa resorts catering to the wealthy, these roadside stops could be perfunctory, inadequate, and even filthy without any real consequence, especially as they were generally the only choice in the area.
In most respects, Weiss writes, Washington fit the profile of the elite tourists who traveled to Saratoga and Niagara. At Mt. Vernon he lived in luxury, surrounded by fine imported goods. At New York and Philadelphia, he was attended by the slaves he brought with him from Virginia. In the normal course of life, he might never have traveled to places like Charlotte or Marblehead. Yet rather than visit only those places he found tolerable, he ventured to indifferent house after indifferent house, committed to exploring the nation he was trying to create.
As Washington left North Carolina for more familiar grounds, he once more wrote a succinct review of his experiences. In this final entry in eighteenth-century Yelp account, he makes it clear just how unpleasant the situation was: “The accomadations on the whole Road… we found extremely indifferent—the houses being small and badly provided either for man or horse… It is not easy to say on which road—the one I went or the one I came—the entertainment is most indifferent—but with truth it may be added, that both are bad.”