Death was unlikely to have been on George Washington’s mind as he went out to check on his farms, as was his habit, on Thursday, December 12, 1799. His recent health had never been better. He had been making various plans for an active future. That day he remained outside for approximately five hours, despite the fact that–as he recorded in his journal, which he kept faithfully–the weather was very disagreeable, a constant fall of rain, snow and hail, with a high wind.
While getting wet and chilled from the snow and sleet and rain, with snow still clinging to his hair and coat, Washington decided not to change his clothes before dinner that December 12.
Already beginning to show signs of a cold and sore throat the next day, on Friday morning, and despite continued bad weather which included sleet, he went out briefly in the afternoon to mark some trees that he wished to have cut down. By evening he was very hoarse but still in good spirits. He insisted on reading sections of the newspaper out loud to his wife, Martha, and his private secretary, Tobias Lear, who was a major source of information about Washington’s final illness.
By the early hours of Saturday morning, the 14th, the disease had progressed so rapidly that Washington awoke feverish, very uncomfortable, and with labored breathing. He would be dead before the day ended. When he woke up with labored breathing and high fever, Martha wanted to summon help, to get out of bed and find a servant. Washington refused to allow her to do this. She was recovering from a serious illness herself, and he was worried. Even with the danger to his own health, he did not want to risk a setback for his wife. When his overseer was summoned to bleed the general, the man was nervous and anxious about performing such an operation on his illustrious employer. But George Washington reassured him: “Don’t be afraid.”
In the course of the long and agonizing day, Washington consistently apologized to those trying to care for him and ease his suffering for the trouble that he was causing them. He apologized, for example, to Lear, who was helping him move to different positions in the desperate quest to find sufficient oxygen, worrying that the effort would fatigue Lear.
Washington even urged his personal body servant, a slave named Christopher Shields, who had been standing by his bed throughout the day, to sit down. How many powerful leaders, in the midst of an excruciating terminal illness, would either notice or be concerned with the fact that a personal servant had been standing on his feet for most of the day? Such actions speak volumes about Washington’s character.
Toward evening Washington said to his friend and physician, Dr. Craik: “Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. I believed, from my first attack, that I should not survive it. My breath cannot last long.” Relatives of the family were sent for, but did not arrive in time to hear his last words. At six o’clock he said to Mr. Lear, his secretary, as the latter raised him up in bed: “I feel myself going; I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.” At about ten o’clock he attempted to speak to Mr. Lear, but failed several times. At length he audibly murmured: “I am just going. Have me decently buried; and don’t let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.” Mr. Lear could not speak, but bowed his assent. Washington whispered: “Do you understand?” Mr. Lear replied, “Yes.” “‘Tis well,” said the dying Patriot; and these were the last words that he spoke–“‘Tis well!”
“About ten minutes before he expired,” Mr. Lear wrote afterwards,” his breathing became easier. He lay quietly; he withdrew his hand from mine and felt his own pulse. I saw his countenance change. I spoke to Dr. Craik, who sat by the fire. He came to the bedside. The General’s hand fell from his wrist. I took it in mine and pressed it to my bosom. Dr. Craik put his hand over his eyes, and he expired without a struggle or a sigh. While we were fixed in silent grief, Mrs. Washington, who was sitting at the foot of the bed, asked with a firm and collected voice, ‘Is he gone?’ I could not speak, but held up my hand as a signal that he was no more. ”Tis well,’ she said, in the same voice; ‘all’s now over; I shall soon follow him; I have no more trials to pass through.’”
The above Christmas Day (December 25, 1799) obituary of George Washington was written by his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, and published in the New York paper “The Spectator”. Lear served as Washington’s secretary from 1784 until Washington’s death in 1799.
Washington, the American revolutionary leader and first president of the United States, was 67 years old when he died.
Washington was born in 1732 to a farm family in Westmoreland County, Virginia. His first direct military experience came as a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia colonial militia in 1754, when he led a small expedition against the French in the Ohio River valley on behalf of the governor of Virginia. Two years later, Washington took command of the defenses of the western Virginian frontier during the French and Indian War. After the war’s fighting moved elsewhere, he resigned from his military post, returned to a planter’s life, and took a seat in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
During the next two decades, Washington openly opposed the escalating British taxation and repression of the American colonies. In 1774, he represented Virginia at the Continental Congress. After the American Revolution erupted in 1775, Washington was nominated to be commander in chief of the newly established Continental Army. Some in the Continental Congress opposed his appointment, thinking other candidates were better equipped for the post, but he was ultimately chosen because as a Virginian his leadership helped bind the Southern colonies more closely to the rebellion in New England.
With his inexperienced and poorly equipped army of civilian soldiers, General Washington led an effective war of harassment against British forces in America while encouraging the intervention of the French into the conflict on behalf of the colonists. On October 19, 1781, with the surrender of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis’ massive British army at Yorktown, Virginia, General Washington had defeated one of the most powerful nations on earth.
After the war, the victorious general retired to his estate at Mount Vernon, but in 1787 he heeded his nation’s call and returned to politics to preside over the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The drafters created the office of president with him in mind, and in February 1789 Washington was unanimously elected the first president of the United States.
As president, Washington sought to unite the nation and protect the interests of the new republic at home and abroad. Of his presidency, he said, “I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn in precedent.” He successfully implemented executive authority, making good use of brilliant politicians such as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in his cabinet, and quieted fears of presidential tyranny. In 1792, he was unanimously reelected but four years later refused a third term.
In 1797, he finally began a long-awaited retirement at his estate in Virginia. He died two years later. His friend Henry Lee provided a famous eulogy for the father of the United States: “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
- Adapted from multiple sources