Festive crowds had greeted George Washington on many occasions when he traveled in and out of the capital city. Yet on this crisp, clear March morning, he and his wife Martha rode almost unnoticed as their carriage rattled across the brick and cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. John Adams was president now, and the Washingtons were leaving for Mount Vernon, their home in Virginia.
George Washington was delighted to be leaving public office. He was 65 years old and anxious to spend the remainder of his life away from the stress and responsibilities of the presidency. He believed he was near the end of his life; few people at that time lived past their mid-sixties, and many men in Washington’s family had died at a relatively young age—four of his brothers and his father had died while in their thirties or forties.
Following Adams’ inauguration on March 4, 1797, Washington had remained in the President’s Mansion for another five days, while his successor stayed at a local boarding house. He helped Martha pack 97 boxes and 14 trunks, and twice called on Adams. The Washingtons said goodbye to old acquaintances and enjoyed a last-minute shopping spree just before departing the city. Martha bought shoes and furniture, and George purchased wine, nuts, medicine, a smoking jacket, and a new pair of glasses.
When the couple arrived at Mount Vernon, Washington quickly settled into the routine he had always practiced while living there. Rising before the sun, he read or tended to his correspondence until about 7:30 a.m., when he emerged from his library for a light breakfast. He then rode about the plantation, talked to his farm manager and overseers, and inspected operations. He returned to the mansion in the afternoon for the day’s second, and largest, meal, one that frequently lasted up to two hours. Before nightfall, Washington often toured the gardens and visited the stables and carriage house near the mansion or returned to his library. In the evening, he rejoined the family for a light meal, often cheese, bread, fruit, and a glass of wine, and usually retired before 10:00 p.m.
Colleagues often spoke of Washington’s “retirement,” a term that he also used on occasion. In reality, Washington had not retired; he had merely left public life. Now he managed his personal business interests, which included Mount Vernon’s labor force of more than 300 slaves. He enjoyed this lifestyle and sometimes spoke of these pursuits as his “occupation and amusement.”
Washington thought of himself as a planter, although in 18th-century Virginia that term described those who earned their livelihood from growing tobacco. By that definition, Washington was not a planter. He had nearly phased out tobacco production at Mount Vernon 30 years earlier, substituting grains, flax, and hemp.
Furthermore, much of Washington’s attention was directed toward non-agricultural concerns, and the majority of Mount Vernon’s workers never went near a hoe or plow. Some were trained as skilled artisans and labored on the estate as blacksmiths, carpenters, and masons. Others were assigned to one of the property’s five stills that produced nearly 12,000 gallons of corn whiskey annually. Some worked in the sawmill, gristmill, and on one of Washington’s two fishing vessels that sailed the Potomac River. Numerous women labored as domestics or made clothing.
Through a series of complicated land deals that included both sales and exchanges of western property, Washington raked in nearly $50,000 during the last five years of his life (the equivalent of approximately $750,000 in today’s currency). In July 1799, he assessed the thousands of acres that he owned at $488,000. Nevertheless, as shrewd and successful a businessman as he was, Washington was aware of the vicissitudes and uncertainties of business. He worried about his and Martha’s economic security, so he decided to lease most of Mount Vernon’s land, which would leave him with a steady income. He had originally launched the search for tenants in 1793, but every promising lead had come to nothing.
Washington had resolved to lease the property only if he found “peaceable, industrious, and skilled” tenants who would employ free African American laborers, for he wanted to free his slaves and permit them to live and work as hired hands at Mount Vernon. Prior to the War of Independence, Washington never contemplated such an action, but by 1783 he had become uncomfortable in his role as a slave owner.
Although Washington was happy in retirement, he had not been at Mount Vernon long before he complained that he lacked time to meet his responsibilities. Dealing with his correspondence was especially time-consuming. He was inundated with unsolicited letters, the majority of which he tried to answer, averaging about one letter every day. Many were lengthy missives, containing carefully crafted sentences to ensure the style was correct and that he had expressed himself with clarity. Business trips also occupied his time. He undertook journeys to inspect nearby land that he had recently bought. Business frequently took him to Alexandria, sometimes for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Bank of Alexandria. Less often, Washington traveled to Georgetown for meetings of the Board of Directors of the Potomac Company (formed in 1784 to develop a canal that would link the trans-Appalachian frontier to the Chesapeake Bay). He made several trips to the Federal City—many were already calling it Washington—to look into investment opportunities.
Washington’s time was also taken up by the incessant parade of visitors who came to Mount Vernon. Hundreds of wayfarers stayed overnight during the 30 months of Washington’s retirement. So many came that once Washington noted in his diary, “I am alone at present . . . . Unless someone pops in, unexpectedly—Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us—that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”
Mount Vernon took on the air of a hotel. The stream of visitors included foreign dignitaries and old acquaintances from the war years, or their children or siblings. Even one of Washington’s former Continental Army bodyguards dropped in. Business associates, Virginia politicians, and relatives called on him. Some guests were total strangers and, on occasion, Washington did not even know the name of the person he was hosting. Many affluent Americans sent their sons to Mount Vernon for the same reason that subsequent generations sent their children to Europe. A visit to Mount Vernon was regarded as the capstone of a young man’s education, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be in the presence of the greatest American luminary and to see the most famous residence in the land. The demands on his time were so great that during his first year at home, Washington persuaded Lawrence Lewis, the son of his sister Betty, to move to Mount Vernon in order to “ease me of the trouble of entertaining company.” As surrogate host, Lawrence led guided tours, dined with visitors, and chatted with the company in the evening.
Finding beds for the visitors was challenging, as the mansion bulged at the seams with permanent residents. Domestic servants, a housekeeper, and a clerk had quarters in the house. Nelly and George Washington Parke Custis, teenage grandchildren from Martha’s first marriage, also lived at Mount Vernon. Nelly, who was regarded as a beautiful and lustrous young woman, was the apple of her grandfather’s eye. To Washington’s delight, she chose to be married at Mount Vernon on his birthday (February 22) in 1799. Nelly’s brother, however, caused Washington to despair. Wash, as he was called, flunked out of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania) and Princeton and dropped out of St. John’s College in Annapolis after a brief stay.
Although Washington commented on political matters in his private correspondence, he insisted that he would never again return to public service. Many people did not think he could stay away. Eliza Powel, the widow of a prominent Philadelphian and a close family friend, candidly told him that he would be unable to adjust to life on a remote farm after the excitement of the war and presidency. She was wrong about that—Washington obviously loved his life at Mount Vernon—although her suspicions that he soon would be back in the thick of public affairs proved correct.
Washington returned during the “Quasi-War,” a national emergency in 1798. When trade disputes threatened a conflict with France, President Adams made preparations for war, including the creation of a provisional army of 20,000 fighting men. In July 1798, Adams dispatched Secretary of War James McHenry to Mount Vernon to implore Washington to take command of the army.
Washington immediately accepted the appointment on the condition that he could remain at Mount Vernon until the French actually threatened to invade. That was acceptable to Adams, and probably not unanticipated. Washington did travel to Philadelphia on November 5, however, for planning meetings with McHenry. He did not return to Mount Vernon until just before Christmas 1798. Shortly after Washington left Philadelphia, Adams, who once had said that he thought the prospect of seeing the French army in America was about as great as seeing it in Heaven, announced a diplomatic mission to France to seek a peaceful solution to the imbroglio. The sense of crisis swiftly diminished in 1799, and Washington’s interest once again turned to farming and business.
It was a busy time for Washington. He took an inventory of his work force, which included 317 slaves. Many were dower slaves, but he held clear, legal title to more than 200 chattel. Then he prepared a new will, terminating the one he had drawn up on the eve of the War of Independence. He bequeathed the use of his estate to his wife. He also awarded Martha all of the mansion’s furnishings, property in Alexandria, and the profits from the sales of his land and businesses. He deeded Mount Vernon to Bushrod Washington, his nephew, whom Adams had recently appointed to the United States Supreme Court. He allocated his remaining possessions to nearly 40 people, including approximately 9,000 acres that was to be divided among more than 20 relatives. He gave his Potomac Company stock to a university planned for the Federal District. Finally, he decreed that Billy Lee—his body servant throughout the war—be manumitted and awarded an annual pension of $30 immediately upon his owner’s death. The remainder of the slaves were to be freed upon his death, or Martha’s should she survive him.
Washington remained in such excellent health, however, that he began to plan another arduous trip for the spring of 1800 to inspect his frontier properties in the vicinity of present-day Charleston, West Virginia. In fact, when illness first invaded the mansion in 1799, it was Martha who collapsed and was briefly thought to be at death’s door. A physician diagnosed her malady as an “Ague & fever” and treated her with quinine. Subsequently describing herself as “so very sick,” Martha was incapacitated from August into October.
While she was recuperating, Washington learned of the death of his last surviving brother, Charles. Not one male in the family had lived to be 70. Nevertheless, Washington, now approaching his 68th birthday, appears to have been lighthearted that autumn and was thrilled when word arrived that Nelly had safely given birth to her first child on November 27. Washington was busy and looking toward the future. He drafted a four-year plan of operations at Mount Vernon and, in a letter written on the last day that he enjoyed good health, urged Alexander Hamilton, his aide-de-camp during the War of Independence and later his secretary of the Treasury, to work for the establishment of a national military academy.
Washington wrote that letter on December 12, at the end of a long, cold day that he had spent out-of-doors. He had ridden out in mid-morning under heavy, gray skies. Around noon snow began to fall. Later, the snow turned to sleet, and still later to a cold rain. Washington remained outside for more than five hours, and according to Tobias Lear, his secretary, did not change out of his wet clothes or dry his hair when he returned home.
Washington awoke the following morning with a sore throat. Although he was not especially alarmed, he remained inside most of the day, except for a brief spell when he tagged trees that he wanted to have removed. By nightfall his voice had grown hoarse, but otherwise he felt fine. That evening, Washington read the newspaper and listened as Lear read an account of recent debates in the Virginia assembly. He was in good spirits when he retired around 10:00 p.m.
When Washington awoke about four or five hours later, his breathing was labored, and he felt desperately ill. He roused Martha, but would not permit her to summon a physician. By dawn, his condition had further deteriorated. Unable to swallow and barely able to breathe, Washington asked Martha to send for an overseer who treated his slaves and was experienced in bleeding, a standard medical remedy of the time. Meanwhile, Lear sent for Dr. James Craik, who lived nearby and had attended Washington for more than 40 years.
The overseer arrived at 7:30 a.m. and drew off a half-pint of Washington’s blood in the useless and dangerous procedure. When Craik arrived he diagnosed Washington’s malady as quinsy, or a peritonsillar abscess—a bacterial infection of the tonsils. There is a greater likelihood that Washington had been struck down by a streptococcus infection, an ailment that results in asphyxia as the swelling about the glottis inhibits breathing. Craik may have been mistaken in his diagnosis, but he appreciated the seriousness of his patient’s condition and immediately sent for Dr. Gustavus Richard Brown of Port Tobacco and Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick of nearby Alexandria, hoping that one of the doctors would arrive while there was still time to save Washington.
Both physicians reached Mount Vernon by mid-afternoon and attempted a variety of expedients. They immersed their patient’s feet in warm water and wrapped his throat with a compress that had been soaked in a medication. Later, they applied a blister (a local irritant) made of cantharides—Spanish fly—and concocted a vaporizer. Washington tried without success to gargle a mixture of molasses, vinegar, and butter prescribed by his doctors. Throughout the day the doctors applied poultices of wheat bran and administered two laxatives. Washington was bled three more times, the last time against the strong objections of Dr. Dick, the youngest of the three doctors and a former apprentice of Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia, America’s foremost physician. Instead, Dick proposed a delicate operation to open the trachea below the site of the infection, enabling Washington to breathe. He was outvoted, however, by his colleagues, who viewed surgery as too dangerous and who, perhaps, also feared attempting such a hazardous expedient on their famous patient.
Washington steadily deteriorated. He sat in a chair in front of the fireplace during the morning but returned to bed at about 11:00 a.m., never to arise again. Around 5:00 p.m. Washington, with great difficulty, told all present that he knew he was dying and asked that his doctors do no more. He had been aware of his fate since first awakening in the darkness of early morning, he said. “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go,” he whispered at about 8:00 p.m. For two hours, the only sounds were his labored breathing. Then he stirred. “I am just going,” he said to Lear. “Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.” Martha, Lear, the doctors, and Christopher Sheels, his body servant, stayed with him, listening and watching in anxious silence. At about 10:30 p.m. on December 14, 1799, George Washington, aged 67, drew his final, difficult breath.
The following day, Lear arranged for a coffin to be constructed in Alexandria. Slaves opened and cleaned the family’s modest brick vault, located a few hundred feet from the mansion. Mount Vernon’s female domestic servants worked longer hours than usual, making mourning clothes, baking cakes, preparing punch, and attending the first mourners who descended on the estate. On the clear, cold morning of December 18, slaves placed Washington’s open casket on a wooden bier on the portico above the Potomac River. From noon onward, several hundred guests viewed the body.
At 3:00 p.m. a schooner on the Potomac fired a salute, and the procession to the gravesite commenced, led by troops from Alexandria, whose band played a dirge. Four lieutenants in the Virginia militia carried the black-draped coffin. Clergymen, representatives from the Masonic Order, approximately 100 militiamen, Washington’s closest neighbors, and his horse, led by two postilions, accompanied the family downhill. The ceremony at the tomb included both the Episcopalian Order of Burial and full Masonic rites, after which 11 nearby cannon blasted a deafening, smoky salute.
As news of Washington’s death reached beyond the Potomac, memorial services were held in every state, as well as in France and Holland, the two European nations that had recognized the United States during the War of Independence. When word arrived in Philadelphia, President Adams ordered a period of official mourning, and the clerk of the House of Representatives entered in that body’s journal: “Our Washington is no more.” A few days later, Congress resolved to have Washington’s remains transferred to the Federal City and buried beneath a marble monument in the Capitol. Martha consented, but funds were not appropriated for 30 years, and the project was never undertaken.
Observances of Washington’s death varied. Local pastors conducted simple services in many small towns. College presidents preached funeral sermons on many campuses. Most cities held elaborate commemorative services. An Episcopalian bishop presided at the memorial in Williamsburg, while a Catholic bishop conducted a solemn mass in Washington’s memory at St. Peter’s in Baltimore. In Boston, which Washington’s Continental Army had liberated from British occupation in March 1776, nearly a quarter of the city’s 30,000 inhabitants processed through the streets. Philadelphia reproduced the ceremony conducted at Mount Vernon, with military units accompanying a coffin and riderless horse to a Lutheran church for a mock funeral. Citizens paid their respects to the soldier whom they mourned as the man most responsible for the American victory in the War of Independence and to the leader who never abused the power entrusted to him.
John Ferling, professor of history at the State University of West Georgia, is the author of biographies of Washington and John Adams and Setting the World Ablaze: Washington, Adams, and Jefferson in the American Revolution.
This article was written by John Ferling and originally published in the December 1999 issue of American History Magazine.
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