George Washington Slept Here

There is a reason so many old inns and B&Bs along the Atlantic coast proclaim ‘George Washington slept here’. One of the main differences between tourism in Europe and North America in the early 19th century was the development of hotels as a common place for tourists to reside in America. President Washington had a real influence in this regard. In 1789, he became President by a unanimous vote of the electoral college, the only time this ever happened, and at the start of his Presidency that year, he was determined to promote national unity among the various States and regions of this new country.

He decided on an ambitious project: to do a Grand Tour of all the States that had ratified the Constitution. His first journey was from his home in Mt. Vernon VA to New York City, the then national capital, where he would be inaugurated. He passed through Virginia, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey before reaching New York, greeting townsfolk along the way.

Then, after the inauguration, he sailed to Rhode Island to encourage the legislature there to ratify the Constitution, but it did not do so until 1790. In the fall of 1789, he decided to visit the rest of New England States. He did not visit Vermont, which was still not officially detached from New York, becoming a State in 1791, nor did he visit Maine, as it was part of Massachusetts until the 1820s. His trip, leaving from the then capital in New York City, went through Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Hampshire and was a great ‘American’ success. In 1791, once North Carolina had ratified the Constitution, he proceeded south from Philadelphia and visited the existing southern States of North and South Carolina and Georgia.

Being careful to protect his status as being ‘above politics’ and, in order to appear to not be favoring different prominent people, Washington elected, insofar as possible, to stay in public establishments (inns and boarding houses) on his tours. By and large, these establishments were small and the accommodations were crude, which he duly noted in his journals.

His decision to do this had the effect of awakening the people in different States to the reality that Americans should be able to move freely about the large, new country and locals should not see potential travelers from other States as ‘foreigners’, as had been the case before 1775.

Suspicion towards outsiders and restrictions on movement had come under pressure from economic development starting in the mid-seventeenth century and travel—for commercial, administrative and religious reasons, among others—was on the rise during the late colonial period. It was not until after the Revolution that things truly began to change…’

Therefore, having decent accommodations for countrymen tourists began to be seen as both good citizenship and a business opportunity. As well, the poor state of the road system was something else Washington experienced first-hand. The States began to realize they had more than one reason for improving the roads.

Where travelers in Europe tended to either stay at the mansions or chateaux of local aristocrats or, if unknown, at rented rooms in private houses, America began to develop relatively large hotels in cities for business traffic as well as pleasure tourism, though the country could not boast of the urban cultural attractions resembling those found in Europe. The word hotel seems to have first entered the English language in the 1760s as a borrowing of the French term ‘hotel’, which referred not to a travel accommodation but rather to the residence of a nobleman, a town hall or any other large, official building. In England, the term signified a guest house of particularly high quality.

There was another reason for the development of the commercial hotel in America. Many of the non-urban attractions, such as Niagara Falls, where there was a hotel at the Falls before 1827, with the completion of the Erie Canal to Buffalo, in the White Mountains and at Saratoga Springs, were located in lightly populated areas where there were few homes and nearly no elite ‘country homes’ where tourists might find their equals who might accommodate them. The development of the Saratoga Springs area north of Albany demonstrates the process of commercializing the ‘Fashionable Tour’.

Outside of these tourist ‘watering holes’, poorer people or rural people on the frontier made use of camp meetings as social distractions in the summer. The first time the country as a whole recognized that something new in tourism was happening in the West came with reports of a massive camp meeting held outside of Lexington KY. An inter- denominational camp meeting revival at Cane Ridge KY in August, 1801 drew an estimated 20,000 participants, ten times the population of Kentucky’s largest town. The settlers came to hear a number of preachers, each established in a separate booth, and to conduct all sorts of secular and commercial activities as well. The reports of various, ‘shakes’ and ‘jerks’ and emotional outbursts added to the picture presented by newspapers to the coastal State populations. Cane Ridge established the mass revival style begun in late Puritan New England as a core evangelical instrument as well as a place for all kinds of frontier-style tourism, including camping, social, business and other activities. As one young camp meeting participant noted in a letter:

I have attended the Houston (GA) camp meeting and enjoyed myself well in one respect. We had beaux in abundance, which always gratifies the girls—too much for their spiritual good.

Gradually, Americans began to move around their country, just as George Washington had hoped. It was not just the pull of new land in the west that fueled this restlessness, but a desire, and the time to see how people lived over the next hill. From camp meetings in the early 1800s to the millions who visit National Parks today, tourists have attracted entrepreneurs to cater to their budgets and entrepreneurs have, in turn, developed accommodations and facilities for the tourists, while governments have helped provide the means for tourists to get to wherever they’re going.