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1799 Two Hundred Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

The Death of Washington

On the morning of December 12, George Washington mounted his horse as usual and rode out to inspect his Mount Vernon plantation. The weather was cold and wet, and the sixty-seven-year-old former President received a thorough chill during his five-hour tour. The next day, Friday the thirteenth, snow and a sore throat kept him indoors for most of the day. When his secretary, Tobias Lear, suggested taking some medicine for his cold, the hero of Valley Forge scoffed. As the night wore on, however, Washington’s throat condition became serious. He tried to dose himself with a mixture of vinegar, molasses, and butter but could not get it down. Shortly before dawn he called for George Rawlins, an overseer who sometimes treated Washington’s livestock and slaves. Rawlins drew about three-quarters of a pint of blood.

Further help was summoned in the morning. The first doctor to arrive was James Craik, a close friend of Washington since their service together on the Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s. According to his own account, Craik tried “two copious bleedings,” a cantharides blister, two doses of calomel, and an unspecified “injection,” which “operated on the lower intestines.” The patient, who was probably suffering from tonsillitis or diphtheria, continued to breathe with great difficulty. He tried to gargle with vinegar and sage tea but abandoned the effort after nearly choking.

Two more physicians arrived that afternoon, and in true eighteenth-century fashion, the trio of doctors proved three times as lethal as a single one. They bled Washington yet again, this time removing a full quart. Vinegar, the all-purpose remedy, was inhaled in a vapor mixed with steam. Additional calomel and “repeated doses of emetic tartar” produced nothing more promising than “a copious discharge from the bowels.” With the patient’s life slipping away, the desperate physicians applied another set of blisters as well as a “cataplasm” made of bran and the inevitable vinegar to his throat.

 

At this point the wheezing former President, who (as Craik wrote) had been “submitting to the several exertions made for his recovery rather as a duty, than from any expectation of their efficacy. . . . succeeded in expressing a desire that he might be permitted to die without interruption.” The old general spent his final hours putting his affairs in order and doing his best to reassure those around him. Around ten o’clock on the evening of December 14, he gave Lear instructions for his burial. When Lear, unable to speak, nodded in reply, Washington asked, “Do you understand me?” Lear said yes, and Washington spoke his final words: “Tis well.” He died about an hour before midnight.

Even in death Washington was not safe from the strenuous but ineffective medical science of his day. The architect and inventor William Thornton rushed to Mount Vernon and proposed to revive Washington by rubbing his skin, blowing air into his lungs, and transfusing him with lamb’s blood. Friends of the deceased President barred Thornton from carrying out his experiment.

From the halls of Congress to the smallest frontier village, Americans universally mourned their departed leader, though in ways that varied with their political views. Fisher Ames of Massachusetts, a strong supporter of Washington’s Federalist party, compared the departed President to a lighthouse, the polestar, the Milky Way, the Ohio and Potomac Rivers, and assorted ancient Greeks and Romans. The Senate’s official memorial said, “Favored of heaven, he departed without exhibiting the weakness of humanity.” A New England minister expressed wonder “that his great and immortal soul should be contented to reside in a human form so long.”

The First Lady, Abigail Adams, decried this “mad rant of bombast” and declared, “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy.” Philip Freneau, an anti-Federalist poet, reacted to the rash of fulsome encomiums by praising a different Washington: “He was no god, ye flattering knaves,/He own’d no world, he ruled no waves;/But—and exalt it, if you can,/He was the upright, Honest Man.”

The best-known summation of Washington’s career came in a resolution written by Henry (“Light-Horse Harry”) Lee of Virginia and adopted by the House of Representatives. Lee’s resolution climaxed with the memorable line “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” A few days after those words were spoken, Congress approved a joint resolution to erect a memorial to the late President—a project that would not be completed until the unveiling of the Washington Monument in 1884.

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