On this day in 1799, President George Washington passes away. He was living in retirement at Mount Vernon at the time.
The importance of this latter fact cannot be emphasized enough. Remember: Washington could probably have been a King, if he’d really wanted to be. Yet, at the end of the day, all Washington ever really wanted was to be at home, taking care of his own affairs.
Washington was just ambitious enough to get himself and the country where it needed to go. Yet he was humble enough that he became tired of the presidency and wanted to retire, even before Americans were ready to let him go. His retirement set a precedent for peaceful transitions of power from one President to the next. If he’d died in office, that important precedent would never have been set.
Washington spent much of December 12 riding around his estate in cold and rainy weather. The next day, he admitted to a sore throat, but he refused to do anything about it. His secretary, Tobias Lear, later wrote that Washington considered the sore throat a “trifling” matter and “he would never take any thing to carry off a cold—always observing, ‘let it go as it came.’” Washington spent the evening reading newspapers aloud—apparently in a hoarse voice—with Martha Washington and Lear.
Unfortunately, the “cold” quickly became more serious. Washington woke Martha up in the early morning hours, saying that he felt unwell. Martha wanted to get help, but it was cold, and he refused to let her get out of the warm bed. He did not want Martha to catch a cold.
The next morning, doctors were called to Washington’s bedside. Unfortunately, the medical practices of the time most likely worsened his condition: They “bled” him repeatedly. Interestingly, one of the doctors urged a different cure. He wanted to cut a hole in Washington’s trachea, beneath the supposed infection, to help him breathe, even though his throat was closing. (Modern doctors have speculated that even this solution might not have helped, though.)
At about 4:30 in the afternoon, Washington asked Martha to bring him his wills. He had her burn one, as it was useless. Washington gave more directions about other matters to Lear. At one point, he told a doctor, “I die hard, but I am not afraid to go.” Later, he asked Lear to make him a promise: “[D]o not let my body be put into the vault in less than two days after I am dead.” (Presumably, he did not want to be accidentally buried alive.) Lear nodded, but Washington persisted: “Do you understand me?” Lear said, “Yes, sir.” Washington responded: “’Tis well.”
These were his last words. He died soon thereafter. The Father of our Country had bid his last farewell.
Dr. Howard Markel, Dec. 14, 1799: The excruciating final hours of President George Washington (PBS NewsHour ; Dec. 14, 2014)
Dr. White McKenzie Wallenborn, George Washington’s Terminal Illness (Washington Papers website)
Edward Charles M'Guire, The Religious Opinions and Character of Washington (1836) (reprinting the account of Tobias Lear, beginning page 338)
Kat Eschner, George Washington’s Hard Death Shows the Limits of Medicine in His Time (Smithsonian Magazine; Dec. 14, 2017)
John Alexander Carroll & Mary Wells Ashworth, George Washington, A Biography; Vol. 7: First in Peace (1957)