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The Death Of A Hero

May 2024
19min read

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

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

Between two and three in the morning, Washington awoke Martha to say that he had suffered an ague and was feeling extremely unwell. Observing that he could scarcely speak and was breathing with difficulty, Martha was alarmed. She wished to summon a servant, but Washington would not let her do so, lest by getting out of bed she should catch cold. It seems to have been at this point that the hero decided that he was going to die. As two of his physicians later put it, “He was fully impressed at the beginning of his complaint… that its conclusion would be mortal; submitting to the several exertions made for his recovery, rather as a duty, than from any expectation of their efficacy.”


At daybreak a maid came to make the fire. She was sent to get an overseer named Rawlins, who commonly ministered to sick slaves: Washington wished to be bled before the doctor (who had also been sent for) could get there. Lear was awakened. “A mixture of Molasses, Vinegar & butter was prepared, to try its effect in the throat; but he could not swallow a drop, whenever he attempted it he appeared to be distressed, convulsed and almost suffocated.”

The sun was up by the time the overseer appeared. He had brought his lancet, but he was white and trembling. Washington bared his arm and, speaking with difficulty, said, “Don’t be afraid.” The incision having been made and the blood running pretty freely, Washington observed, “The orifice is not large enough.”

At this, Martha, who was not sure that her husband was prescribing the right treatment, begged that too much blood should not be taken. She appealed to Lear “to stop it.” Lear tried to intervene, but the General put out his hand in an arresting gesture. As soon as he could speak, he said, “More!” However, Martha continued to plead, and the bleeding was stopped after half a pint had been taken. While Lear applied various poultices and soaked Washington’s feet in warm water, Martha sent for a second doctor.

The first physician to arrive was Dr. James Craik, an elderly Scot who had been Washington’s neighbor and close friend since they had served together during Washington’s first campaign in the French and Indian War. He used Spanish fly to draw blood into a blister directly from Washington’s throat; he also took more blood from Washington’s arm. The patient obediently tried to use a gargle of sage tea and vinegar, but the only result was that he was again almost suffocated. Craik urged him to cough. He tried, but could not do so. Craik sent for a third doctor and bled the general for a third time. “No effect however was produced by it, and he continued in the same state, unable to swallow anything.”

Between three and four in the afternoon, two horsemen galloped separately up the driveway to Mount Vernon: Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick of Alexandria and Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown of Port Tobacco. Recollections become a little contradictory at this point, but it seems that the two new physicians each in turn examined Washington. Then the three doctors withdrew for a conference.

The facts on the conference are more precise. Drs. Craik and Brown agreed on the diagnosis of quinsy (an extreme form of tonsillitis) and urged further debilitating treatment—more bleeding and blisters and also catharsis. Dr. Dick, who at thirty-seven was by far the youngest of the three, argued that Washington was suffering from “a violent inflammation of the membranes of the throat, which it had almost closed, and which, if not immediately arrested, would result in death.” He urged an operation that would open the trachea below the infection so Washington could breathe.

At first Craik seemed convinced, but Brown persuaded him that the operation might he fatal. Suspecting that his colleagues were afraid to assume such responsibility in the case of a patient so famous, Dick said that he would take all blame for failure on himself. Still Craik and Brown would not agree. Then Dick urged that the patient not be bled again. Although he accepted the therapeutic efficacy of bleeding, he felt that this remedy should be applied to the elderly only sparingly. Concerning Washington, he said, “He needs all his strength—bleeding will diminish it.”

Later, after he had had time to think calmly, Craik wrote Brown that they should have listened to Dick. Had they “taken no more blood from him, our good friend might have been alive now. But we were governed by the best light we had; we thought we were right, and so we are justified.” (Down the years doctors have speculated on the nature of Washington’s illness. One guess is diphtheria, another a virulent streptococcus infection of the throat. Either disease would, in the state of medicine at that time, have been fatal regardless of the treatment prescribed.)

As a result of the doctors’ despairing conference, Washington was bled for the fourth time: ”… the blood ran very slowly—appeared very thick,” but the operation “did not produce any symptoms of fainting.” When, toward four in the afternoon, Washington proved able to swallow a little, the doctors took advantage of this situation by giving him calomel and other purges.

“About half past 4 o’clock,” Lear recorded, “he desired me to ask Mrs. Washington to come to his bedside—when he requested her to go down into his room & take from his desk two wills which she would find there, and bring them to him, which she did.—Upon looking at them, he gave her one, which he observed was useless, as it was superceded by the other, and desired her to burn it, which she did, and then took the other & put it away into her closet.

“After this was done, I returned again to his bedside and took his hand. He said to me, ‘I find I am going, my breath cannot continue long; I believed from the first attack it would be fatal, do you arrange & record all my late military letters & papers—arrange my accounts & settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters, which he has begun.’

“I told him this should be done. He then asked, if I recollected any thing which it was essential for him to do, as he had but a very short time to continue with us. I told him, that I could recollect nothing, but that I hoped he was not so near his end. He observed, smiling, that he certainly was, and that, as it was the debt which we must all pay, he looked at the event with perfect resignation.”


As the afternoon wore on, the pain in Washington’s throat and his distress at his difficulty in breathing increased. He continually asked, “in so low & broken a voice as at times hardly to be understood,” what time it was. He tried for a while sitting up by the fire, but, finding no relief, asked to be returned to his bed. Then he kept trying to shift his tall frame into a more comfortable position. The smaller Lear would lie down on the bed beside him “to raise him, and turn him with as much ease as possible.” Washington would mumble the hope that he was not giving too much trouble. To one of Lear’s assurances of his eagerness to help, Washington replied, “Well, it is a debt we must pay to each other, and I hope when you want aid of this kind you will find it.”

He asked when his nephew Lawrence Lewis and his step-grandson George Washington Parke Custis would return from a trip. Lear said he believed about the twentieth of the month. “He made no reply to it.”

Craik came in and approached the bedside. “Doctor,” Washington managed to enunciate, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. … My breath cannot last long.” Lear noted: “The Doctor pressed his hand, but could not utter a word. He retired from the bedside, and sat by the fire absorbed in grief.”

The other two physicians entered. They ordered that the sufferer be painfully pulled up into a sitting position. “[A]fter repeated efforts to be understood,” so wrote Craik and Dick, he “succeeded in expressing a desire that he might be permitted to die without further interruption.” As Lear quoted him, “I feel myself going, I thank you for your attention, you had better not take any more trouble about me; but let me go off quietly; I cannot last long.” Medical science, however, cannot give up trying. The doctors, although they admitted they were “without a ray of hope,” applied blisters and also poultices of wheat bran to Washington’s legs and feet.

Everyone noted that at no point in his illness did Washington complain or speak of his agony. As the evening lengthened into night, he limited his convulsive efforts at speech to asking what time it was. His breathing became a little easier, and then a fear struck him—the fear of being buried alive. Summoning all his powers, he managed, after several false starts, to say to Lear, “I am just going. Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the Vault in less than three days after I am dead.”

Lear bowed assent, being too moved for words. Washington fixed his gaze. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Sir.”

”‘Tis well.” These seem to have been the hero’s last words.

The night dragged slowly on. The two younger doctors, not being intimates of the family, waited downstairs. From the windows of the second floor room, lamplight threw glistening squares on meager snow. Within, Dr. Craik sat, as he had for hours, staring into the fire. Washington’s body servant, Christopher, stood by the bed, a post he had not deserted since morning, although Washington had several times motioned him to sit down. A group of house servants —“Caroline, Molly and Charlotte,” and some others—stood near the door. Lear was hovering around the head of the bed, intently trying to interpret every gesture and do what he could to ease the sufferer. Martha was sitting near the foot of the bed.

No one thought to look at a clock, so we only know for sure that it was approaching midnight when Washington withdrew his hand from Lear’s and felt his own pulse. Lear called Craik, who came to the bedside. Washington lifted his arm and then his “hand fell from his wrist.” As Lear reached out for the limp hand, Craik put his own hand over Washington’s eyes. There was no struggle, not even a sigh.

In a calm, controlled voice, Martha asked, “Is he gone?”

Unable to speak, Lear held up his hand in a signal of assent.

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