On December 14, 1799, George Washington died. He was as much a victim of the practice of medicine of his day, as of the illness that beset him. Washington led an active, vigorous life until the very end of his nearly 68 years. He had been out making his rounds in the midst of some very raw weather, when he came down with a severe sore throat. The doctors called to provide care, took 82 ounces of blood, more than 5 pints, in an attempt to provide relief. Despite the pain and suffering he endured, Washington died as he lived, concerned for his dignity and appreciative of those around him. Some of his last words were:
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.
Anyone who has studied Washington’s life knows what a melancholy, tragic death it was. Here was a man who had devoted the majority of his life to the service of his country, and who was deprived of all but a few short years of retirement. Throughout the trials and tribulations of the Revolutionary War, Washington maintained his composure and serenity, in part, by focusing on his beloved Mount Vernon. No less than Jefferson, Washington took the utmost delight in improving his home. He was fascinated with agriculture, and yearned to get his plantation running smoothly. He was never satisfied with any of the overseers who took care of his property during his long absences. He wrote countless letters, and constantly inquired as to the state of things there. A big part of his being was centered around his home.
However, despite his deep affection for his property, he was perfectly willing to sacrifice it, if necessary. He was furious when, in 1781, he heard that his then-overseer, Lund Washington (a distant cousin), had treated with the enemy. The British approached Mount Vernon from a ship on the Potomac, and Lund Washington supplied provisions to them in order to avoid having the plantation destroyed. Here is what Washington had to say about it,
It would have been a less painful circumstance to me to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my house and laid the plantation in ruins. You ought to have considered yourself as my representative, and should have reflected on the bad example of communicating with the enemy, and making a voluntary offer of refreshments to them with a view to prevent a conflagration. 30 April, 1781 Letter to Lund Washington
Doing the right thing, whatever the cost, was a hallmark of Washington’s character, even if it meant risking his beloved home. Time and time again, Washington set aside his own interests in favor of the needs of his country. Washington served as General of the Continental Army, without pay. Washington prevented disgruntled army officers from taking over the government after the war through the respect he commanded. He was the one person who could be accepted by all, and whose stature was sufficient to bring all parties together for the Constitutional Convention, over which he presided. Washington was elected unanimously as president – twice. He set countless precedents in how he fulfilled the office of President, but none so significant as the last, a voluntary transition of power. He had done the same thing when he had relinquished his commission as Commander in Chief, even when some clamored to make him king.
Washington was the right guy, at the right time, in the right place. Harry “Light-horse” Lee was right on the mark with his famous eulogy, Washington really was “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
We’ve not seen his like since, may he rest in peace.