Arts + Culture

The Presidents as Travelers

by Ted Widmer

George Washington

Where The Eagle Landed: Barbados

Home and abroad: When George Washington's half-brother Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, went to Barbados to improve his health in 1751, he brought George along for company. Young Washington, then 19, kept a sprightly diary ("The Ladys Generally are very agreeable"), then recorded grimly that he was also sick, "strongly attacked with the small Pox." Fortunately, he survived, scarred but no longer vulnerable to the disease—a fact of supreme importance during the Revolution, when many Americans under his command perished from the pox. Although he never again ventured abroad, Washington was extremely well traveled by colonial American standards. As president, he maintained the tradition, knowing that his visits to the 13 not-very-United States helped to shore up a nation that often lacked a center. A few critics grumbled about Washington's monarchical airs and what was, for the time, an enormous presidential motorcade—a stagecoach with a valet, two footmen, and a coachman, led by four white horses—but Washington's travels were an essential step on the path to nationhood.

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