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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
Washington had, he wrote, come to that period of life “when repose is most congenial to nature and calm indispensible for contemplation.” But calm so often escaped him. He was perpetually roiled by the angers and frustrations and obsessive anxieties of old age. When his mail was not efficiently handled, he sent an angry blast to the local postmaster. In the still evenings he seemed to hear as an almost sensible sound the gnawing of plotters trying to undermine the foundations he had so painfully raised for the United States.
France’s reaction to the Jay Treaty had been to conclude that America was ranging herself on the side of Great Britain. The French set up legal reprisals against American commerce and made armed attacks on American shipping. They breathed threats of all-out war. Washington was concerned lest, should a French army appear off the coast, those Jacobins, the Jeffersonian Republicans, would, in their eagerness to subvert the government, come to the assistance of the enemy.
In his prime, Washington had considered such suspicions in themselves subversive. He had insisted during the Revolution—even in the blackest times—that no one, whatever his political beliefs, should be considered a traitor or spy except on the most positive evidence. But now the old man put his prestige (although only in informal correspondence) behind the notorious Alien and Sedition Acts, with which the Federalists were attempting to stamp out dissent. Washington had, it is true, suffered unfairly and grievously from newspaper excesses, but until recently he had maintained that, however abused, freedom of the press was essential to a free government.
Congress, fearing expansion of the undeclared naval war with France, empowered Adams on May 28, 1798, to raise for three years’ service an army of ten thousand men. Adams knew from his own previous emotions how Americans feared that a standing army would be the first step to tyranny; he was conscious that there were divisions in the country which the existence of such an army might exacerbate; and he was too clear-sighted a politician not to realize that despite the attacks made on the old hero by the strongly pro-French faction, Washington still possessed, more than any other man, the confidence of the people. It must have been a bitter pill for Adams to swallow, but he swallowed it: he offered the command of the projected army to his perpetual bête noire , George Washington.
On every previous occasion when called to a major responsibility—even when a very young man—Washington had been diffident, expressing consciousness of inadequacy and worry lest he fail. But it was without any visible hesitation that the old gentleman notified Adams of his acceptance. And he insisted that he and hone other should appoint his subordinate generals.
Despite his failing powers, Washington proved to be unafilicted with that military psychology which makes generals begin each new war according to the strategy that won the last one. He remembered that during the Revolution “time, caution, and worrying the enemy until we could be better provided with arms, and other means, and had better disciplined Troops … was the plan for us.” But if the French tried to invade now,
they ought to be attacked at every step, and, if possible, not suffered to make an establishment in the Country, acquiring thereby strength from the disaffected and the Slaves, whom I have no doubt they will arm, and for that purpose will commence their operations South of the Potomack.
Washington nominated Hamilton to hold the staff post of inspector general and to be his second in command. Since he expected the fighting to be in the South, he urged the appointment of Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina as third in rank and combat general. Thus Washington overlooked the basic principle, as old as colonial co-operation, that New England could not be excluded from any chain of power. He also bypassed his old friend and former artillery chief, General Henry Knox, who in seniority outranked both Hamilton and Pinckney. Knox was from Massachusetts and so was President Adams. The President, in whose province the appointments clearly lay, decided to change the order of the generals, placing Knox above Pinckney, and Hamilton, whom he considered dangerously overambitious, last.
During the Revolution, Washington had been scrupulously subservient to the will of his civilian masters, the Continental Congress. Now he found unbearable the interference of the President of the United States. He struck out in a manner reminiscent of his raw young manhood. In September, 1798, he threatened to resign. Should the President not accept the ranks Washington had assigned the various generals, he wrote, “the Public must decide which of us is right, and which wrong.”