The Death of George Washington

George Washington died in late 1799, two months shy of his 68th birthday.

The Health of George Washington

Anyone who had seen George Washington a few weeks before his death would have remarked how well the General looked. They would have been right.

The General.

With little exception, Washington enjoyed robust health throughout his lifetime. He survived the normal childhood ailments. He contracted and survived a mild case of smallpox when he was in his late teens. He managed to avoid contracting tuberculosis (consumption), a highly contagious disease, despite close contact with his afflicted older brother, Lawrence, whose Mount Vernon estate came to George after the older man died.

The eight years he spent in the Virginia militia toughened him inside and out, and left him relatively free of injury or recurring camp fevers. Fifteen years later, during the eight years Washington spent as General of the Continental Army, he again was relatively free of illness, and despite a conspicuous presence on the battlefield, was never wounded.

The few fevers and agues reported to afflict him were generally mild, and he recovered.

Later Health

General Washington wanted nothing more than to return to Mount Vernon. Throughout the Revolutionary War, he corresponded regularly with his plantation manager, and the beloved estate was never far from his thoughts.

The President.

Past fifty when the war ended, he still enjoyed the vigorous physical challenges of tending his property.  He spent hours in the saddle, inspecting every inch of the place.

His retirement, however, was brief. Within two years, a tenuous “government” of confederated states was deteriorating, and the General, perhaps the only one whose presence and support could command complete respect, was again recruited, this time to preside over another convention of state notables to “reinvent” a new and improved government. When part of that new “constitution” established the office of “President,” it was considered a given that George Washington would hold that title.

Once again he left the comforts of Mount Vernon, and except for periodic visits, was away for nearly another decade.

The Beloved Hero.

Middle age was generally kind to the new president, save for a painful episode from a carbuncle (boil) on his thigh, early in his first term. Then as now, they frequently require surgical lancing. There were no antibiotics, which today are routinely and effectively prescribed to counter the infection that causes boils. He suffered miserably for several weeks, and recovered.

When he finally retired for good in 1797, he was still vigorous at sixty-five. The joy of returning to Mount Vernon removed years as well as cares.

December, 1799

For nearly three years, the retired General/President once more took up his plowshare to resume work as planter, frequent host and elder statesman.

He still stood tall and rode like the soldier he was. He may have lost a step or two, and needed glasses for reading, and complained of chronic toothache – but he was strong and alert.

The Elder Statesman.

Thus, on December 12, he mounted his horse for his routine inspection circuit around the plantation. It was a raw, damp day, and in the early afternoon a wintry-mix began. He returned around 3 PM, soaked and chilled.

Dismissing the suggestion that he change to dry clothing, he managed his desk work for an hour before dinner. By evening, he felt poorly and retired early. 

His wife Martha, accustomed to tending the usual sicknesses of both plantation and military life, became alarmed at his fitfulness during the night. Washington had a high fever, and complained of a very sore throat.

The Treatment

The most common treatment for just about anything in the 18th century, was bleeding: opening a vein and removing about a pint of blood from the patient. George Washington endorsed the practice, but as a modern reader might suspect, the cure only aggravated the problem.

Tobias Lear, George Washington’s secretary, was also alarmed, and sent for Dr. James Craik, an Alexandria physician and Washington’s close friend of nearly fifty years. Craik had been educated at the University of Edinburgh, considered one of the finest medical schools in Europe. He emigrated to the “colonies” and met George Washington, then a 20-year-old militiaman. If any doctor was to be trusted, it was Craik.

By midday, Washington could barely speak, and had difficulty swallowing. He was bled again. And again.

At Martha’s urging, a second physician, Dr. Gustavus Brown was summoned. While waiting for Brown, Craik sent for yet another physician, having grown alarmed at the severity of Washington’s condition.

A fourth round of bleeding was performed, and some sources believe that 32 oz. of blood had been removed.

Despite continuous weakness, pain, fevers and loss of blood, the General was conscious and cognizant, and suspected this illness to prove fatal. He had written two wills some time earlier, and asked that they both be brought. He reviewed them, selected the one he wanted, and ordered the other to be burned. He instructed his secretary to settle his accounts, and directed that when he died, his body was not to be interred until three days had passed.

Washington’s final resting place at Mount Vernon.

The News

On December 14, 1799, two weeks before the turn of a new century, George Washington murmured “’tis well,” and expired. He was 67.  He had been ill for only two days.

The news of his death traveled quickly to his northern Virginia neighbors, but slowly to the rest of the country. Those in the populated coastal cities learned the sad news by Christmas. For those living inland and in remote areas, months passed before they were apprised. 

All were shocked and stunned and grieved.

Church bells tolled a mournful dirge. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Ministers in pulpits across the country prepared eulogies of the greatest American of their time.

Lighthorse Harry Lee, a friend, a Virginian and Revolutionary War comrade in arms, said it best, and perhaps most memorably… “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Sources:

Lengel, Edward G. – General George Washington: A Military Life – Random House, 2005

Randall, Willard Sterne – George Washington – Galahad Books, 2000

https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/the-death-of-george-washington/

https://www.nps.gov/york/learn/historyculture/craikbio.htm

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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