- Historic Sites
The Death Of A Hero
Mortally ill as his century dwindled to its close, Washington was helped to his grave by physicians who clung to typical eighteenth-century remedies. But he died as nobly as he had lived
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
The man who had been most jealous of George Washington for the longest time was John Adams. Adams was like the fisherman who had let the genie out of a bottle and not been able to get him back in again. He was convinced that he had created Washington in 1775 when, in his desire to get the South to join with New England against the British army, he had suggested that the Virginia colonel be made Commander in Chief. No sooner had Washington been elected than envy began. Adams thus described in a letter to his wife, Abigail, the parade Washington led on horseback at the departure for the fighting:
… a large troop of light horse in their uniforms; many officers of the militia besides, in theirs; music playing, etc., etc. Such is the pride and pomp of war. I, poor creature, worn out with scribbling for my bread and my liberty, low in spirits and weak in health, must leave others to wear the laurels which I have sown; others to eat the bread which I have earned. …
A Harvard graduate and a lawyer, Adams knew that he was better educated than the farmer who was almost without formal schooling. Adams played with ideas; he denigrated the huge hero who thought deliberately and spoke slowly. Yet when Washington did speak, the world listened, while only too often Adams’ opinions were brushed aside as if he were an over-insistent bumblebee. To Adams, it seemed unfair.
For twenty-two years Adams had suffered under this situation. He had tried to clip Washington’s wings as Commander in Chief—surely, if allowed to become too powerful, the soldier would make himself king or dictator—but Washington grew ever more powerful. And then, when the war ended, he made a mockery of all Adams’ carefully studied historical precedents: lie turned private citizen and went home. Adams continued to labor in the government, yet the spotlight did not swing to him. It moved south and remained fixed on the planter in his fields. When the first vote was taken under the new Constitution, Washington was elected President unanimously, while Adams not only had to be satisfied with the Vice Presidency but achieved the second office by an annoying divided vote. Eight more years passed, and Washington steered the ship of state, not too anxious to consult his old opponent.
Now it was March 4, 1797, and at long last the situation seemed to be righting itself. Washington was stepping down from the Presidency and Adams was stepping up. Elegant in a pearl-colored suit, wearing a sword and a cockade, Adams was seated by himself in a state carriage, moving to his inauguration through cheering crowds. He alighted and advanced with ceremony to the House chamber. The doors were thrown open and lie walked in. Many of the eyes that turned on him were wet with tears, and in a moment they turned away again to dwell on the tall, elderly figure in an old-fashioned black coat who had walked to the ceremony (as Adams learned later) unaccompanied.
Adams confided to his wife in two successive letters:
Your dearest friend never had a more trying day than yesterday. … Everybody talks of the tears, the full eyes, the streaming eyes, the trickling eyes, etc., but all is enigma beyond. No one descends to particulars to say why or wherefore; I am, therefore, left to suppose that it was all grief for the loss of their beloved.
What made the intended triumph over Washington the more equivocal was the expression on Washington’s countenance. It was “as serene and unclouded as the day. He seemed,” Adams wrote, “to enjoy a triumph over me. Methought I heard him say, ‘Ay! I am fairly out and you are in! See which of us will be happiest.’ ”
Washington hoped to revive those years, remembered as the happiest of his life, which he had spent at Mount Vernon between the war and his return to public concerns at the Constitutional Convention. He wrote:
Rural employments while I am spared (which in the natural course of things cannot be long) will now take place of toil, responsibility, and the sollicitudes attending the walks of public life; and with vows for the peace, the happiness, and prosperity of a country in whose service the prime of my life hath been spent, and with the best wishes for the tranquillity of all Nations, and all men, the scene will close; grateful to that Providence which has directed my steps, and shielded me in the various changes and chances, through which I have passed, from my youth to the present moment.
Despite his pleasure in saying farewell to responsibilities. Washington was leaving the government with considerable bitterness of heart. He had viewed himself as taking part in a stupendous experiment lo prove that mankind was capable of governing itself, and as the end of his first term in the Presidency had approached, he felt that this most important of all political truths—it would change the history of the world!—had been triumphantly demonstrated. However, he had scarcely considered his task completed when turmoil much more virulent than the American Revolution exploded in France, to be followed by European wars with ideological implications that leaped across the ocean to split the United States—even Washington’s cabinet—into rival camps.