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This Day in History: George Washington’s final wish

On this day in 1799, George Washington writes one of the last letters that he would ever write. He couldn’t then know it, but he was mere hours away from coming down with a fatal illness. Among his final written words? A letter about military academies—a subject near and dear to his heart.

If only he could have known that an institution such as West Point was in America’s future?!

West Point graduation (2010). Photo by Mike Strasser, West Point Public Affairs Office.

Washington had long advocated for a military academy. His experiences during the American Revolution taught him the need for such military training. The war effort had been constantly hindered by Americans’ lack of knowledge, and Washington had been forced to look to foreigners for help with military engineering, training, and artillery.

But shouldn’t Americans be able to do all this for themselves!?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Washington pushed for education after the war, urging his fellow countrymen to establish one or more academies “for the Instruction of the Art Military; particularly those Branches of it which respect Engineering and Artillery . . . .”

How frustrating when nothing happened. Washington must have felt that he was constantly banging his head against a wall! Throughout his time as President, Washington hoped for a national military academy, but it was never approved. The people were wary of standing armies, and Congress was too divided to get anything done anyway.

Fortunately, others took up the cause, even after Washington retired. By 1799, Alexander Hamilton was working on a new plan, which he sent to Washington for review. “Any alterations in the plan which you may do me the honor to suggest,” Hamilton wrote on November 28, “will receive the most careful attention.”

He couldn’t know it, but he was asking Washington to perform one last public service before his final exit from this life.

Washington responded to Hamilton’s note on December 12, either just before or just after he completed a long ride around his estate in cold and rainy weather. The next morning, Washington woke up with a sore throat. Washington’s health quickly deteriorated, and he passed away on December 14.

Washington wouldn’t live to see the military academy that he’d wanted so badly, but he surely would have been happy if he’d known what would eventually come: In 1802, Thomas Jefferson signed a bill authorizing the creation of a “corps of engineers.” These corps, the legislation provided, “shall be stationed at West Point in the state of New York, and shall constitute a military academy.”

The academy opened on July 4 of that same year.

Washington would have been proud of what came next. During the War of 1812, as historian Henry Adams notes, “[n]one of the works constructed by a graduate of West Point was captured by the enemy.” Could Washington, D.C. have been saved from the British if more West Point engineers had been employed there? Adams seems to think that the answer is yes.

West Point has produced notable graduates and great military minds ever since. Douglas MacArthur, George Patton, John J. Pershing, Norman Schwarzkopf—and, yes, even controversial figures like Robert E. Lee—all graduated from West Point.

“The Establishment of [a Military Academy], upon a respectable and extensive basis,” Washington wrote to Hamilton on this day so long ago, “has ever been considered by me as an Object of primary importance to this Country . . . .”

If he could see what West Point has been to this country during the past 200+ years, he’d surely feel that he’d been proven right.

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