Giving meaning to the End of his Life
There was no Presidential Library ceremony to attend when George Washington decided to leave the White House and live out the rest of his life in Mount Vernon Virginia. The important papers and books of Washington was amassed much later after his death and a dedicated location did not come until 200 years later in 2013. The Nation’s first President intended to quietly retire to his estate mostly farming and experimenting with different techniques of gardening to pass the days. Except for one thing. He quickly became bored out of his mind.
Rather than walking up and down the fields of the lush rows of greenery, Washington wound up pacing back and forth on the long porch out front of his 11,000 foot mansion feeling anxious and antsy. He was no longer in the game of politics and it was eating him alive. He found that slowing down at 65 years old was not for him that there was still more for him to contribute to a troubled nation. His evenings at dinner time were less restful as he was often greeted by visitors who wanted to meet the first president and discuss the latest politics and debate. This only fueled his fire to want to offer his experience to the Nation he helped create. It was estimated that he had received up to 677 guests one year (1798) which consisted of family and strangers alike. If Washington was going to be visited and engage with that many visitors perhaps he should return to where the action was steeped in true debates and contributions to change. However, not everyone viewed his return as a welcome sight. Former friends, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe condemned his return stating that he was acting as a King the very thing he try to avoid by leaving office after his second term. At that time there was no limit to the years a President could rule and since this was the first time a President was named there was no standard. It was Washington himself who stated he should leave to avoid the “King” status. Now, he had returned and pushed against this principal.
The unsettled threat of France and the possibility of being at war caused Washington to enact his Commander-in-Chief of the Army status. After all French ships were actively attacking American ships. Fearing that his friend and successor John Adams might need his assistance Washington wrote to the current President offering to organize the army in the best interests of the Nation.
The French monarchy had loaned a ton of money to the Revolutionary cause, putting France into debt, and contributing to the economic crisis that sparked the French Revolution. The U.S. stopped payments on the debt, arguing that it was owed to the monarchy, not to their fellow newly formed democracy. To make things worse, the U.S. was in the process of normalizing relations with Britain, still at war with France. While France had given the U.S. a massive amount of support in our war against Britain, we remained neutral in theirs.
Outraged, France began sending privateers (privately owned ships a country hires to fight when they’re not prepared to send their actual navy) to seize American ships trading with Britain, and severing diplomatic relations with the U.S. The privateers were virtually unopposed, seizing over 300 ships, as the U.S. had disbanded its navy after the Revolution, hoping to stay out of foreign affairs. President Adams had to build a navy from scratch.
ELECTION MEDDLING? REALLY?
Hard to believe but accusation of election meddling from other countries was a real concern in 1798. Washington was concerned with not only the potential for full war with France but that they had interfered in the American Election. In a remarkable parallel to today’s politics, Washington’s Federalist Party accused France of meddling in the presidential election at the request of Jefferson and his fellow Republicans.
July 13, 1798
President of the United States.
DEAR SIR: I had the honor, on the evening of the 11th instant, to receive from the hands of the Secretary of War your favor of the 7th, announcing that you had, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appointed me “Lieutenant-General and Commander in Chief of all the armies raised or to be raised for the service of the United States.”
The Quasi-War is the reason two branches of the armed forces exist. Both the Department Of The Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps were founded in response to the French privateers’ attacks on American shipping. Benjamin Stoddert, a Revolutionary War vet who had previously, at the request of Washington, purchased the land on the Potomac that would become Washington, D.C., had to organize both concerns as the first secretary of the Navy. He wisely realized that the Navy didn’t have enough ships to engage the French all over the Atlantic, so he massed his forces in the Caribbean, attacking France at its strongest point. Stoddert’s plan was a smashing success, as the new 25-ship Navy (largely commercial vessels purchased and armed by Stoddert) captured or damaged several French frigates, and captured eight privateers while losing only one American ship, Retaliation, which was itself a captured and refitted privateer. Even then, Retaliation’s commanding officer managed to convince the French that nearby American ships were overpowered and not worth tangling with.
Washington’s relationship with his wife Martha Washington in those final years;
“By this time in his life he will tell you that marriage is the great joy of life.” Author Jonathan Horn.
He and Martha were raising two grandchildren from her first marriage, and even the “Father of Our Country” struggled to keep up with the demands of parenthood.
“He’s constantly disappointed by Martha’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis,” said Horn. “He keeps dropping out of schools. The boy promises to do better, he never actually does.”
Despite his good relationship with Martha, he still appeared to have strong feelings for Sally Fairfax, a married woman he had loved in his youth.
“We know that because he wrote a letter to Sally Fairfax,” said Horn, “and he said all of the things he had done in his life since then had not brought him as much joy as the time he spent with Sally Fairfax as a young man.”
A WOMAN SCORNED: Other family secrets may be lost forever because, tragically for historians, Martha burned almost all of their letters to protect their privacy.
DEATH OF A FATHER
George Washington’s last push at politics began a year before his death. As he returned home to Mount Vernon after the Quasi-War there was a noticeable difference in his appearance. The passion for more fight had subsided and was evident on his physical slouch and unsteady hands. His hearing has diminished and his painful dentures (not wood) was causing tremendous pain. Never expecting to live past 50 years old the now 67 year old former President was living his final days.
On December 12, 1799, the weather was bone-chilling cold and alternating between rain, snow and sleet but Washington went ahead with his daily routine. He returned home a little later than usual, so his dinner guests had already arrived. Not wanting to be rude, Washington didn’t change out of his wet clothes. The next day, despite heavy snowfall and persistent cold, Washington trudged out again to assess improvements to Mount Vernon. That evening, Washington began to experience chest congestion.
In the early hours of December 14, he woke up his wife Martha. He had a sore throat and was having trouble breathing. Dr. James Craik, Washington’s physician for more than 40 years, was sent for. As they awaited Craik, Washington was bled — a medical treatment common at the time that likely did more harm than good.
Over the course of the day, two additional doctors were sent for. They tried everything: bleeding him multiple times, giving him herbal teas and an enema. Washington nearly choked to death when the doctors had him drink a concoction of molasses butter and vinegar. Craik also applied a toxic tonic to Washington’s inflamed throat to cause it to further blister (another misguided “cure” at the time).
According to Ron Chernow’s Washington, the former president was afraid of being buried alive. He requested on his deathbed that he not be put in the vault until at least three days after he died, and those wishes were honored. He was laid to rest at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799 at the age of 67.
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