The Death Of A Hero


When Washington formed his administration, there were no political parties. But by 1793 the Democratic-Republicans, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, were supporting the radical French, while the Federalists, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, supported England and her conservative coalition. The Jeffersonians accused the Hamiltonians of wishing to establish an American monarchy; and the Hamiltonians accused the Jeffersonians of wishing to set up a guillotine in Philadelphia’s Centre Square.

It was to prevent this breach from tearing the nation asunder that Washington had reluctantly agreed to a second term. He did achieve a major objective—to keep the United States from becoming involved in the war on either side—but he failed to still the domestic conflict. Instead his cabinet flew apart, and he himself was pushed into a partisan position. Because he supported Jay’s Treaty, which by making certain concessions extinguished the casus belli with Great Britain, he was accused by the Jeffersonians of wishing to undermine the American republican forms which, in fact, he had done more than any other man to foster. The hero, who had become habituated to adulation, was attacked with almost incredible ferocity. His enemies even revived forgeries which had been trumped up some twenty years before by the British propagandists to discredit the American Commander in Chief.

During the Revolution, the British slanders had passed Washington by untouched. Then he was laboring mightily and effectively to prevent the infighting between the conservative and radical patriots from splitting the cause and also from weakening his position as the universal leader. But years had since furrowed his brow. Had he been younger and more active during his second term, he might well have been more successful in lulling the new political storm; he would surely not have become the semicaptive of the Federalists. Jefferson noted that Washington, in explaining during 1793 why he did not want to run again, had said that “he really felt himself growing old, his bodily health less firm, his memory, always bad, becoming worse, and perhaps the other faculties of his mind showing a decay to others of which he was insensible himself.”

The hero who returned to Mount Vernon in March, 1797, was according to our contemporary counting not a very old man—he was only sixty-five—yet the evidence is clear that he had left his mental prime behind him. The necessary facts for a true scientific explanation do not exist. It can only be pointed out that in those days men did grow old younger and die younger; that (although his own mother was an exception) he came from very short-lived families; that he believed that he had worn himself out by the strains of his years in public service; and that, although he had been an athletic man, he had suffered from many serious illnesses. He may well have had tuberculosis as a young man; he certainly had recurring attacks of malaria, and he almost died of anthrax during his first presidential term. His step-grandson tells us that during those last years at Mount Vernon he often read extracts from the newspapers aloud in a voice “the tones of which had been considerably broken by a pulmonary affection in early life, and which, when [he was] greatly excited, produced a laboring of the chest.” Now, when Washington read to himself, his lips would move, and he would sometimes silently raise a hand as if in admonition or despair.

Although on the surface much the same—“revolving days [as he put it] producing similar scenes of domestic and rural occurrences”—this retirement was in its essence quite different from his retirement after the Revolution, when he had been fourteen years younger. He still rode round his farms, but much less rapidly, less far in one clay. He began his agricultural experiments with less hope and anticipated the results less eagerly. Cultivating the land, he observed, was still my favorite amusement, [but] I have made very little proficiency in acquiring knowledge either in the principles or practice of Husbandry. My employments through life, have been so diversified, my absences from home have been so frequent, and so long at a time, as to have prevented me from bestowing the attention, and from making the experiments which are necessary to establish facts in the Science of Agriculture.

It was now, he mourned, too late to start what would be a really “scientific course of experiments.”

During his previous retirement, one of Washington’s principal joys had been fox hunting: he had bred a pack of hounds and taken them along with him on his rides in the hope of starting a fox. Now his kennels were silent. Instead of bounding on horseback through woods and fields, he sat quietly on his porch watching the nearby thickets for the shy appearance of deer with black horns. While he had been absent on affairs of state, the paddock surrounding his tame English deer had been neglected. The animals had escaped and crossbred with the natural inhabitants of Virginia forests. Washington had banished his hounds and forbidden all hunting on his estate so that his former pets would not be hurt. “The old ones are now partly wild, and partly tame,” he explained; “their descendants are more wild, but associate with them.” On lucky evenings, they came close enough to Mount Vernon’s great porch to be fed.