Presidential Manners: Philly & George’s “Southern Tour”

If George Washington preferred republican virtue and simple modesty, it was not terribly apparent as he trotted on horseback through the cheering throngs who awaited him on the outskirts of Philadelphia as he made his way to New York for his inauguration. George dismounted and crossed the Schuylkill River in a glorious scene that, as one newspaperman remarked, “even the pencil of Raphael could not delineate.” A twenty-five-foot liberty pole bore a banner reading Don’t Tread on Me! and Behold the Rising Empire. The scene, which would never be equaled, held trappings closer to those of a coronation of an ancient king or emperor than it did to the birth of a new republic. One young lady worked a contraption aimed at lowering a crown of laurel onto George’s head. That night, Philadelphia’s City Tavern hosted a dinner for the president-to-be, described by the PennsylvaniaPacket as “an elegant entertainment” for over 250 guests, with anorchestra inside and fireworks later blasting through the streets and over the harbor.

George Washington oversaw the road to war and the creation of the Constitution in Independence Hall. Naturally, his statue stands front and center in Philadelphia, where he spent most of his presidency.

 

Streets of Philadelphia. President Washington served nearly seven years of his two terms in Philly. He left the city in a carriage for his famous Southern Tour, in which he put his manners and dancing skills on display from Fredericksburg to Georgetown to Savannah.

 

The former home of Daniel Tucker, a prominent Carolinian merchant, whose home was the meeting place for some fifty ladies, who lined up to see George for an impromptu tea in the town of Georgetown. 

Docent Douglas Schmersal explained: “This would have been about where he stood to greet the ladies. If you stand where I am for a moment, I think you’ll be able to sense the great man’s presence still.”

Washington staid in private homes on most of his southern tour. A modern guide shows off the chambers where George staid upon his arrival in Charleston, South Carolina.

Herb Frazier, my long-time journalism buddy, was an erudite and kind guide to Charleston, a city what was as black as it was white when George visited on his Southern Tour. Herb happened to have grown up in the AME Church, the scene of one of the most spiteful race-related crimes in the 21st Century.

The presidential entourage arrived in Savannah, Georgia to much fanfare, including fireworks and dancing in the streets. Here I took a carriage ride through town with a lively narrator, whose voice reminded me distinctly of Forest Gump.

Savannah served up a party for President Washington on his one and only visit. George, as he often did, recounted in his diary all the southern belles he danced with down the last dance. My guide told me: “George Washington danced with about two hundred southern belles, and no one bothered to tell Martha,” adding, “Well, if you asked me, that is a wee bit muuuch!”

The Savannah Waterfront lit up with fireworks as President Washington approached in a riverboat. He danced into the early hours of the morning. On his second night in town he met with a “dancing Assembly at which there were about 100 well-dressed handsome ladies.” A night later, a local scribe noted that, “after a few minuets were moved, and one country dance led down, the President & his Suit retired about 1 o’clock, [am]” adding that, “dances continued to 3 o’clock. [am]” Such were the late southern nights out typical of the era.

I drove down the road to the Hampton Plantation, all hung with spooky Spanish moss, where George’s entourage had been a couple of
hours late for breakfast the next morning. Breakfast soon turned into lunch. Legend has it that one of his hostesses, Mrs. Horry, confided in the general that she wanted to cut down an oak tree, which still spreads across the entire front yard of the big house. George is said to have advised her, “Let it stay. It can do no harm where it is and I would not think of cutting it down,” since it takes generations to grow a great tree. (The story sounded to me to be a little too antithetical to the cherry tree tale to be correct.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark Carroll, harpist at the City Tavern in Philadelphia. Mark designed and built his own instrument and descends from a long line of musicians, one of whom played for George Washington

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