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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
If Washington really believed that there was an active danger of civil as well as foreign war, he could not have made a more irresponsible gesture. Adams was, of course, highly resentful—he stated that he wished he could give Washington back the Presidency —but, using more judgment than remained to his predecessor, he realized that what was at stake was not worth the controversy. The President gave in to Washington and concentrated on the more important labor of defusing the potential war with France. He was so successful that the army Washington was to command was never actually mustered. Yet the fact remains that the elderly hero had behaved in a manner that would have filled him with horror ten years before.
“Against the effects of time and age,” Washington once admitted, “no remedy has yet been discovered, and like the rest of my fellow mortals, I must, if my life is prolonged, submit and be reconciled to a gradual decline.” He now anticipated the end without anxiety; indeed, he seems sometimes to have wished that it would come soon. Washington (although an extremely religious man) subscribed to the teachings of no Christian sect. He supported the Anglican church, in which he had been raised, as an institution valuable in this world rather than as a window into the beyond. Like Franklin and Jefferson, and many more of the great men of the eighteenth century, Washington’s beliefs lay within the broad reaches of that philosophical religion called Deism. He had no strong convictions concerning what would happen to him after death.
Concerning the death of his mother, he could go no further than express “a hope that she is translated to a better place.” Sometimes he mused sadly on “descending into the shades of darkness,” on “being entombed in the dreary mansions of my fathers.” At his most optimistic he stated (in a letter of condolence), “Philosophy and our Religion holds out to us such hopes as will, upon proper reflection, enable us to bear with fortitude the most calamitous incidents of life. …” And again, “There is a good Providence that will never fail to take care of his children.” Perhaps the best summary of his attitude is what he wrote to Knox commiserating with his old friend on the death of a son, “He that gave you know has a right to take away, his ways are wise, they are inscrutable, and irresistable.”
On December 12, 1799, Washington wrote in his diary:
Morning Cloudy. Wind to No. Et. and Mer[cury] 33. A large circle round the Moon last Night. At about 10 o’clock it began to Snow, soon after to Hail, and then to a settled cold Rain. Mer. 28 at Night.
His secretary, Tobias Lear, remembered that the storm started shortly after Washington had ridden out to inspect his farms. The General did not return for another five hours. Lear carried him some letters to frank. Having franked them, Washington said the weather was too bad for a servant to go to the post office.
“I observed to him,” so Lear’s account continues, “that I was afraid he had got wet, he said no, his great coat had kept him dry; but his neck appeared to be wet, and the snow was hanging on his hair.—He came to dinner without changing his dress. In the Evening he appeared as well as usual.”
Concerning December 13, Washington’s journal read, “Morning Snowing and abt. 3 inches deep. Wind at No. Et., and Mer. at 30. contg. Snowing till 1 O’clock, and abt. 4 it became perfectly clear. Wind in the same place but not hard. Mer. 28 at Night.” These were probably the last words that George Washington ever wrote.
Washington admitted during the day to a sore throat. He made no effort to ride out in the storm. However, after the sky had cleared, he walked onto the lawn between his porch and the river to mark some trees he wished to have cut down. His voice was hoarse, but he made light of it. During the evening, he sat in the parlor with Martha and Lear, reading some newspapers that had come from the post office. “He was very cheerful,” Lear noted, “and, when he met with anything which he thought diverting or interesting, he would read it aloud, as well as his hoarseness would permit.”
After Martha had retired, Washington asked Lear to read to him the report of some debates in the Virginia Assembly. When he heard that Madison, who had once been his dear friend, had supported Monroe for the Senate—a man whom he regarded as a dangerous radical—he became upset. He “spoke with some degree of asperity on the subject,” which Lear “endeavored to moderate, as I always did on such occasions.” Eventually, Washington regained his cheerfulness and prepared to set off for bed. Lear urged him to use some medicine.
“No,” said Washington. “You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.”