I’ve had the pleasure and honor of meeting President Gerald Ford after he left office. In addition, I shook hands with Al Gore on two different occasions. Those types of interactions are not as unusual today as they were when the United States wasn’t crisscrossed with interstates and domestic air routes, when politicians didn’t travel far and wide as they do today.
In the 1790s, George Washington made trips around the United States to drum up support for the newly enacted federal government under the Constitution. The journeys were difficult ones given that roads and bridges were scarce, and, for most people, the federal government in New York (Washington, D.C. had yet to be completed) seemed something remote and abstract to most people. Yet, President Washington met mostly adoring crowds on his trips.
Once, when he was headed to Salisbury, North Carolina, Washington was not so sure he would be met with acclamation. The area was known for being skeptical about what the residents there felt was an overreaching, way too powerful federal government. Yet, more because Washington was the military leader who successfully fought the Revolutionary War than he was the national Chief Executive, people still wanted to see him. One of his most fervent supporters was a young woman named Betsy Brandon.
Betsy and her family operated an inn on the road leading to Salisbury. Inns at that time resembled more of the English pub, a place where the public could come for a meal and a drink and, if they were travelers, get a bed for the night. They revered the man even if they didn’t like the power that the Constitution gave the federal government. And, like many in the area, Betsy’s family made plans to attend the reception for Washington in nearby Salisbury.
But there was a problem. The inn was doing good business because of the trip. People were traveling on one of the only good roads in the area–the road that the family inn was on–to get to the celebration. Betsy’s dad said that someone in the family had to stay behind to tend to the customers who would be coming and going that day. And, as luck would have it, Betsy drew the short straw. He opportunity to meet General Washington was lost to her. She was sad, of course, but she understood that the family couldn’t afford to shut the inn for the day, not with all the traffice.
So, Betsy said goodbye to her family as they left early the morning of the event, and she set about getting ready for the day’s incoming business. She made sure there was enough wood for the cook fire, then she made the bread, set the butter out of the keep, made the coffee, and gathered the eggs from the hens’ nests. A few travelers, excited about seeing Washington, came by and got breakfast, but their excitement only frustrated Betsy because she couldn’t go. She told herself to concentrate on the tasks at hand and the disappointment would go away.
A large group of well-dressed travelers came into the inn about 9am. Betsy set about putting the lard in the large, black skillet for the eggs and fatback bacon for the group. They patiently waited for her to serve them, knowing that she was working alone to accommodate them. She thought that her father would be especially pleased because this large group would be paying a goodly sum for the food.
After the meal–which the group seemed to greatly enjoy–one of the men asked her why she was by herself that day. Betsy was a bit surprised. She answered, “Surely you know that General Washington is going to be in Salisbury today, that all the territory is headed that way,” and she went on to say that she was saddened that she missed her opportunity to see the great man when he was oh so close.
The man who had asked her the question, rose to his feet. He leaned over and kissed Betsy on the top of her head. “When your family returns,” he said, straightening, “you can tell them that you saw him before they did, and that he kissed, you, too, because I am George Washington.”