George Washington is one of those figures whose importance assures that his place in history will constantly be appreciated and reanalyzed, and that new biographies, even though all the original source documents have been well ploughed through, will always be forthcoming. Getting a new slant on him might be difficult, but historian Barnet Schecter has found one: let's examine Washington's maps. In _George Washington's America: A Biography Through His Maps_ (Walker & Company), Schecter has looked through an atlas of Washington's individual maps, as well as maps Washington made himself or were kept in other locations. There are reproductions of many of the maps here, and details from them, to illustrate what is mostly but not entirely a military biography. Maps were not just part of Washington's soldiering, but were important to his surveying, farming, presidency, and aspirations for the nation, and while Schecter's book is not a full biography, it combines the maps with stories about them and how they were used along with other biographical details to give a useful and practical view of an American saint.
Washington had over ninety maps and atlases at Mount Vernon, many of which he had used over the years. Since Washington's life, Schecter writes, "was from his early years until his death intimately bound up with the land, the maps tell a great deal about the man and his times." There are many elaborate maps, but one of the most charming is one far simpler. It shows a compass rose in which is an irregular quadrilateral, labeled with latitude and longitude. It bears the heading, handwritten, "A Plan of Major Lawr. Washington's Turnip Field as Surveyed by me, This 27 Day of February 1747. GW." (Lawrence Washington was George's half brother.) Much of Schecter's book is devoted to military maps and the use to which Washington put them. There is Washington's own surveyed map of his perilous journey in 1753 up the Ohio River to help British colonists defend against the French, but most of the maps here are the ones he was studying as he made his plans against the French, and eventually against the British. The importance of such study is the subject of many of Washington's remarks quoted here. He does not seem to have made the mistake of thinking the map is the territory. In 1777 he wrote to General Philip Schuyler who was on a campaign on the Mohawk River about securing a particular area to prevent Indians intercepting logistical supplies. "With his usual courtesy," writes Schecter, "Washington offered this as merely a suggestion, saying Schuyler was `much better acquainted with that country than I.'" After the war, Washington was interested in expansion to the west; it is clear that he was interested in this upon his own behalf as well as upon that of his new nation. He had thought originally of the west as a scene of refuge if the Revolution failed, but knew that it was a region to provide sustenance to the new, growing America. He was particularly interested in mapping the possibilities of making an east / west waterway, especially if it expanded the Potomac westward, which would have immeasurably increased the value of his western holdings and of Mount Vernon. He made a constant study of maps for the best Potomac to Ohio linkage, and got information from frontiersmen and settlers.
Schecter's last chapter sees Washington finally in the contentment he had famously wanted for himself as a gentleman farmer, but which he had sacrificed for service to his nation. Washington was still surveying, and his maps of his Mount Vernon properties are here, the fitting last illustrations in a handsome, large-format volume whose map reproductions are gorgeous. The book will interest anyone who likes to see charming old maps; there are plenty here, including curiosities such as the layout of agricultural fields in Manhattan. Best of all, the book traces Washington's military movements using the maps he himself would have used. We cannot see the America which Washington saw, but we can see it at least as he saw it through the maps he had at hand.