On the Difficulty of Remaining Anonymous When You’re the First President of the United States
Nathaniel Philbrick Follows in the Footsteps of George Washington on Western Long Island
It’s hard to remain anonymous when you’re the president. Just ask Harry and Bess Truman. No matter how under the radar they tried to keep it during their drive across the country in 1953, someone always seemed to alert the press and blow their cover. And yet, for four days in April 1790, during a tour of western Long Island, George Washington somehow succeeded in keeping a remarkably low profile. There is absolutely no mention of this particular presidential tour in the newspapers of the day. And that might have been just the way Washington intended it. Because this excursion wasn’t about generating support for his administration and its policies. This trip was about a debt Washington owed to a handful of people who had made it possible to win the Revolutionary War.
The British army occupied New York City and all of Long Island for most of the conflict. Washington, stationed about 50 miles up the Hudson River in the vicinity of West Point, was desperate for information about the enemy’s intentions. With the help of Benjamin Tallmadge, a young officer with ties to a little town on the north shore of Long Island called Setauket, Washington created what historians have come to call the Culper (a code name derived from Culpeper County, Virginia, where Washington worked as a surveyor in his youth) Spy Ring. Through a series of couriers and informants (with code names like Samuel Culper and Culper junior), messages written in invisible ink or in code were carried from Manhattan to Setauket (a trip of about 60 miles), where they were taken by boat across Long Island Sound to Fairfield, Connecticut, and ultimately to Washington’s headquarters on the Hudson.
Other than his spy chief, Benjamin Tallmadge, Washington was probably the only person in the United States who knew the identities of everyone involved in the Culper Spy Ring. In the spring of 1790, these unheralded saviors of the Republic continued to live in obscurity in this remote portion of Long Island; not even their own families knew about their activities during the war. And that’s how it would remain for the spies’ lifetimes.
If this experiment in republican government known as the United States should fail and America once again became a possession of Great Britain, it would be extremely dangerous if a person’s role as a spy came to light. It was therefore imperative that the spies’ identities remain a secret. (Not until 1939, with the publication of Morton Pennypacker’s General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York, were the spies’ identities revealed for the first time.) Washington couldn’t thank them publicly, but that didn’t prevent him from going out there and seeing for himself the people who had quietly and at great personal risk helped win the war. And besides, he needed a change of scene. It was now five months since his return from his New England tour.
The honeymoon he’d enjoyed during the first nine months of his presidency was over. In February, Alexander Hamilton had put forward his ambitious new economic plan. The cornerstone of his proposal was called assumption, a plan by which the federal government would assume each state’s debt from the war—a necessary move if the country’s purse strings were to be transferred from the states to the federal government. The New England states, which had huge outstanding debts, thought this was a great idea. Not so the South, particularly Virginia, which had already paid down a considerable portion of its debt.
Southerners also objected to Hamilton’s decision to redeem at full value the wartime promissory notes issued to army officers. Although Washington had urged his officers to hold on to these notes, most of the soldiers, desperate for cash, had sold the notes to speculators for only a fraction of their face value. Hamilton’s plan would give these speculators, many of them from the North, a huge financial windfall while leaving the men for whom the money was originally intended with nothing. In the end, however, a debt was a debt, and the Treasury secretary had no choice but to fulfill the country’s fiduciary obligations.
Hamilton had assumed that one of his collaborators on The Federalist Papers, James Madison, would support him on these controversial proposals. During the Constitutional Convention three years earlier, the two had even discussed the necessity of assumption. But now, as a congressman from Virginia, Madison decided to side with his state’s interests rather than the economic needs of the federal government, and he denounced the plan. It was the beginning of the political divide that would soon consume the country as rancor and partisanship quickly rose to the fore in the House and the Senate.This was Washington’s opportunity to let his personal views on slavery be known, but he remained mum.
Adding to the acrimony were attempts by the Quaker abolitionist Warner Mifflin and others to introduce legislation that would end the slave trade and initiate the gradual abolition of slavery, despite the Constitution’s provision that no laws could be passed against the foreign slave trade for at least 20 years. On March 16th, Washington met with Mifflin about the proposed legislation. This was Washington’s opportunity to let his personal views on slavery be known, but he remained mum. Instead of using his office to champion a legislative proposal, as he had done with the Bill of Rights in the fall, he sidestepped the issue altogether.
Once again Washington decided that to tackle slavery at this early stage in the Republic’s development would foment the crisis that might break the Union apart. He might have been right in his assessment, but by ducking the Quaker call for abolition, Washington had made it easier for future generations of Americans—both in the North and in the South—to turn a blind eye to the evils of slavery.
The divisiveness in Congress also applied to the question of where the country’s permanent capital should be located. Northerners wanted it to remain in New York. Those in the Middle Atlantic region preferred Philadelphia, and southerners wanted it on the Potomac River. In this instance, Washington, who otherwise found himself in the northern political camp, sided with the South. Ever since his retirement from the Continental army in 1783, he’d been championing the Potomac as the waterway that should connect the nation to its future in the West.
In 1785, he’d help form the Potomac Company—an enterprise dedicated to improving navigation on the river. He proceeded to broker a series of meetings—first between representatives from the states of Virginia and Maryland (which shared the Potomac as a border), then with representatives from additional states—that culminated in 1787 in the Constitutional Convention. It was perhaps inevitable that Washington’s belief in the Potomac, along with his equally fervent support of Hamilton’s economic policies, would lead to the legislative compromise that ultimately allowed the nation to move forward. But that was yet to come.
For now it was all contention and enmity, and into this increasingly polarized political scene stepped Thomas Jefferson, who began his duties as secretary of state on March 22nd. Compared with Hamilton—who was tightly wound with the brusque, purposeful manner of a former army officer—Jefferson, fresh from the salons of Paris, seemed in no particular hurry. “He sits in a lounging manner,” William Maclay observed, “on one hip commonly, and with one of his shoulders elevated much above the other [H]is whole figure has a loose, shackling air.” Jefferson was taking it all in.
Soon after Jefferson’s arrival, Washington was hit by another bout of illness—“a slow fever” that left him even more emaciated than he’d been since the previous summer’s health scare. Not until the middle of April had he begun to improve. There was much to do in New York, but Washington needed to get his health back on track. What he needed was a road trip.
On Tuesday, April 20, 1790, after a day of rain, he crossed the East River to Brooklyn Heights, where his carriage and baggage wagon were waiting for him. Soon he was headed east along the southern edge of Long Island. “The road,” he recorded in his diary, “kept within sight of the sea, but the weather was so dull and at times rainy that we lost much of the pleasures of the ride.” Better times were ahead.
We crossed the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge, then took Flatbush Avenue to Gravesend. In 1790, Gravesend was a town on a dirt road with newly plowed fields of oats, corn, and wheat on either side. Washington noted that the farmers fertilized their crops with horse manure collected from the streets of New York City and that post-and-rail fences divided up the fields. Today, Gravesend is a neighborhood of Brooklyn, and instead of fields and fences, storefronts and apartment buildings lined each side of the street as above us the elevated subway tracks periodically thundered with passing trains.
We took a slight detour to Coney Island. Because it was a Monday morning in late January, parking wasn’t an issue, and Dora exploded onto the empty beach, running at top speed until she was a distant speck on the gray horizon before turning around and joining us once again, her fur salty and wet, her tongue lolling, and her tail wagging. After a night in a Manhattan hotel and a morning in the car, she was so happy to be running on the edge of the sea that it made both of us smile just to be in her presence on this wind-whipped urban beach.
For the next hour and a half we slogged our way east and south through an unceasing snarl of traffic. We weren’t having much fun, unlike Washington, who had awoken the next morning to a beautiful spring day. By the time he stopped at Zebulon Ketcham’s tavern in Copiague for something to eat, he was feeling downright giddy. “As people collected around the inn and were desirous to have a sight of him,” a local historian relates, “Washington good naturedly took two or three turns on the stoop with his hat off, and then went in.” Imagine it: the president twirling like a fashion model on the stoop of a tavern on Long Island. Washington wanted to avoid all ceremony and military display during this tour, but that didn’t prevent him from enjoying the attention his unexpected appearance inevitably drew.
Soon after leaving Ketcham’s tavern, Washington stopped to watch the Quaker Jonah Willets plowing his field behind a team of oxen. A member of the presidential party, perhaps William Jackson, told the farmer that the man in the carriage was George Washington. The farmer was decidedly unimpressed. “George Washington, eh?” he said just as he came to the end of his furrow and turned his plow around. “Whoa, boy, gee up! G’long!” Willets shouted at the oxen and on he went.
For the rest of the day Washington traveled “in view of the sea… and as near it as the road could run for the small bays, marshes and guts, into which the tide flows.” What Washington was seeing to his right wasn’t actually the ocean; it was the Great South Bay—a giant estuary between the southwestern edge of Long Island and the Atlantic. Eventually, he stopped for the night at the home of Isaac Thompson in Bay Shore. Today the Thompson house is known as Sagtikos Manor, and we were due there for a 2 pm tour. Unfortunately, it was already 1:15, and we still had plenty of ground to cover. Time to quit pretending to be 18th-century tourists and get there as fast as possible.
We assumed the maps app would send us to the parkway to the north; instead, we were directed south to Jones Beach State Park for a circumnavigation of the westerly lobe of the Great South Bay. Almost immediately we’d extracted ourselves from the traffic-congested interior and were flying down an empty road with sand and marsh grass all around and a redbrick water tower looming ahead. Jones Beach attracts six million visitors a year, making it the most popular beach on the East Coast. On that bleak Monday afternoon there wasn’t a car, let alone a person, in sight.
We were all by ourselves on a highway built across the dunes by Robert Moses, the “power broker” of Robert Caro’s book of the same name. Caro tells of how in the decades before and after World War II, Moses clear-cut entire city neighborhoods in his lust to build bridges and highways that reached even as far as here—a once-pristine stretch of beach more than 40 miles from Manhattan. Caro also recounts how Moses constructed handsome arched overpasses across the roads that were purposely too low to accommodate the buses that would have otherwise brought “city dwellers” to Jones Beach. Soon we were on the Robert Moses Causeway and headed back to the main body of Long Island.
We were met at Sagtikos Manor by a delegation of four volunteers led by Christine Gottsch, a proud descendant of Caleb Brewster, the Setauket spy who sailed the coded messages across the Sound in a whaleboat. Back when Washington spent the second night of his tour at this big white house, the place was known as Apple Tree Neck farm. Christine explained that the house’s owner, Isaac Thompson, had been born in Setauket and might have been among Washington’s many informants on British-occupied Long Island. General Howe’s replacement, Sir Henry Clinton, stopped at the Thompson house—a visit that would have provided Isaac with valuable information to pass along to the American high command. Christine told of how after being shown the bedroom in which Sir Henry had slept, Washington said he would be quite happy to stay in their “second-best room.”
We’ll never know whether Washington ever spoke directly to any members of the Culper Spy Ring during his Long Island tour. Did he find the opportunity to thank each one of them in some clandestine way; did he even pay them something for their efforts on the country’s behalf? We do know that even though the Thompson house was not technically a tavern, Washington paid Isaac for his stay. Perhaps that was enough for the Culper spies—payment for room and board and a visit from the president of the United States.
From TRAVELS WITH GEORGE by Nathaniel Philbrick, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Nathaniel Philbrick.