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George Washington's Last Days

( Originally Published 1916 )


Once more before he died Washington was called into public life for a short time. President Adams had sent three commissioners to France. The French Minister, Talleyrand, treated them ill, and sent secret agents to them to let them know that nothing would be done until they paid large bribes. The three Americans sent home cipher dispatches in which they told how they had been received. President Adams thought best to publish these dispatches, putting the letters X, Y, and Z in place of the names of the secret agents. These papers came to be known as the X, Y, and Z dispatches, and they caused great excitement in America. The cry was, " Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute," and the war spirit rose very high. Everyone wished Washington to be the leader in case there should be war with France. President Adams accordingly wrote to Washington, asking him to accept the command of the new army which was to be formed. Washington accepted, on condition that he was not to be called into service unless there should really be war, and that he should be allowed to name the chief officers who were to serve under him. He wished to put a young and able man second in command—for old officers seldom make good ones—so he chose Hamilton first, then Pinckney, and then Knox. Adams disliked Hamilton, and tried to place Knox second in command, as this old officer thought his due. There was some trouble between Washington and Adams on this point, but Adams was forced to give way to the great leader. Washington went to Philadelphia in the fall of 1798, to work over army plans with his major-generals. It seemed possible that he might have to lead the Americans against one of Napoleon's great armies. But though he made careful preparations, Washington did not believe that there would be war. He thought, however, that preparing for war would be the best way to bring about peace. And so it proved; for no sooner did Talleyrand see that the Americans were really aroused than he caused it to be intimated to the American Minister at Holland that he would treat another envoy better. Adams accordingly sent one to France, and war was finally averted, though the news of the settlement did not reach America until after the death of her great General.

Washington had said, " I am of a short-lived family, and cannot remain long upon the earth." In fact, his sister and all of his brothers except one died before he did. According to his usual careful habits, he made out a long paper, in which he planned how his estates should be managed for several years, with a rotation of crops. He finished this paper only four days before his death. The day before he was taken ill he walked out with his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, who was married to Nelly Custis and living at Mount Vernon, and talked to him about building a new family vault. " This change," said he, " I shall make first of all, for I may require it before the rest."

On the 12th of December, 1799, Washington made the tour, as usual, of his plantations. The weather was very bad. There was rain, hail, and snow falling at different times, and a cold wind blowing. It was after three o'clock when he re-turned. Mr. Lear, his secretary, brought him some letters to be franked, for he intended to send them to the post office that afternoon. Washington franked the letters, but said that the weather was too bad to send a servant out with them. Lear noticed that the General's neck appeared to be wet, and that there was snow clinging to his hair. He spoke to him about it, but Washington said that he was not wet, as his greatcoat had protected him. He went to dinner, which was waiting for him, without changing his clothes. The next day he complained of a sore throat, and remained in the house in the morning, as it was snowing hard. In the afternoon, however, he went out to mark some trees which he wished cut down, between the house and the river. He was quite hoarse by evening. He sat in the parlor, however, with Mrs. Washing-ton and Lear, reading the papers which had been brought from the post office. He read some things aloud in spite of his hoarseness. At nine o'clock Mrs. Washington went to the room of her grand-daughter Nelly, whose first child had recently been born. The two gentlemen continued to read the papers, and Washington seemed cheerful. Once he became excited over some political event, and used some of the strong words he could command on occasion. Before they went to bed, Lear advised the General to take something for his cold.

" No," said Washington ; " you know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came."

During the night, however, he had a chill, and awoke Mrs. Washington, telling her that he felt ill. She wished to get up, but he would not allow her to do this, lest she should take cold. When the servant came into the room to make a fire at day-light, Mrs. Washington sent for Lear, and got up herself. The General was now breathing with difficulty, and could scarcely speak. Lear sent for Dr. Craik, and meantime Washington told him to send for Mr. Rawlins, an overseer, to bleed him. Rawlins came soon after sunrise, and trembled at the prospect of opening a vein on the great man's arm. "Don't be afraid," said Washington; and when the vein had been opened, he added, " the orifice is not large enough." Mrs. Washington did not approve of the bleeding before the doctor came, but Washington said, "More, more." It was a universal remedy in those days, but it brought no relief to the sufferer.

During the day three doctors arrived. Washing-ton was bled three times ; blisters were applied to the throat and the feet ; all that medical science could do in that day was tried, but without success. The disease was an acute laryngitis, and could have been relieved only by tracheotomy, which was not practical in the South, though it had been tried in Philadelphia at an earlier date. About half-past four in the afternoon the sick man asked Mrs. Washington to go downstairs and fetch two wills from his desk. He looked at them, and asked her to burn one of them, which she did. Lear now came to his bedside and took his hand.

I find I am going," Washington said to him. " My breath cannot last long. I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do you arrange and record all my late military letters and papers. Arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than anyone else, and let Mr. Rawlins finish recording my other letters which he has begun."

Washington asked Lear whether he thought of anything else that ought to be done; he had but a very short time, he said, to remain with his friends. The secretary answered that he could think of nothing, and that he hoped the General was not so near his end as he thought. Washington smiled, and said that he certainly was, " and that, as it was a debt which we must all pay, he looked on the event with perfect resignation."

Sometimes he seemed to be in pain and distress from the difficulty of breathing, and was very rest-less. Lear would then lie down upon the bed and raise and turn him as gently as possibly. Washington often said, " I am afraid I shall fatigue you too much "; and when the young man assured him that he wished for nothing but to give him ease, Washington replied :

" Well, it is a debt we must pay to each other, and I hope that when you want aid of this kind you will find it."

He noticed that his servant, Christopher, had been standing most of the day, and told him to sit down. He asked when his nephew Lewis and his adopted son Custis, who were away from home, would re-turn. When his lifelong friend, Dr. Craik, came to his bedside, he said: " Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it. My breath cannot last long." The doctor was unable to answer from grief, and could only press his hand.

He afterward said to all the physicians: "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." He continued to be restless and uneasy, but made no complaints, only asking now and then what time it was. When Lear helped him to move, he gave the secretary a look of gratitude. About ten o'clock at night he made several efforts to speak to Lear before he could do so. He finally said : " I am just going. Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead." Lear nodded, for he could not speak.

" Do you understand?" asked Washington.

" Yes."

"'Tis well," said the dying man.

About ten minutes before death his breathing became easier; he felt his own pulse, and the expression of his face changed. One hand presently fell from the wrist of the other. Lear took it in his and pressed it to his bosom.

Mrs. Washington, who sat near the foot of the bed, asked in a firm voice, " Is he gone? "

Lear was unable to speak, but made a sign that Washington was dead.

"'Tis well," said she; "all is now over; I shall soon follow him; I have no more trials to pass through."

Washington died on December 14, 1799, in his sixty-eighth year. All his neighbors and relatives assembled to attend his funeral; the militia and Freemasons of Alexandria were present; eleven pieces of artillery were brought to Mount Vernon to do military honors, and a schooner which lay in the Potomac fired minute guns. Washington's horse, with saddle, holster, and pistols, was led before the coffin by two grooms dressed in black. The body was deposited in the old family vault, after short and simple ceremonies. Washington was deeply mourned all over the United States, for never had a man been so beloved by his own countrymen.

Washington left all of his estates to his wife for life; after her death they were to be divided between his nephews and nieces, and Mrs. Washington's grandchildren. He made his nephew, Bushrod Washington, his principal heir, leaving Mount Vernon to him. He said that he did this partly because he had promised the young man's father, his brother, John Augustine, when they were bachelors, to leave Mount Vernon to him in case he should fall in the French war. He willed that all his negro slaves should be set free on the death of his wife. He said that he earnestly wished that it might be done before this, but he feared it would cause trouble on account of their intermarriages with the dower negroes who came to Mrs. Washington from her first husband, and whom he had no right to free. He willed also that such should be comfortably clothed and fed by his heirs. To his five nephews he left his swords, with the injunction that they were " not to unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be in self-defense, or in defense of their country and its rights; and in the latter case to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands to the relinquishment thereof."

Washington's life is an open book. He knew that he was making history, and he kept careful copies of all his most important letters and writings, so that it is impossible that there should be doubts on any very important point. So jealous was he of his own honorable reputation, that his last act as President was to file a denial of the authenticity of some spurious letters which were attributed to him by his political enemies. These letters were first published during the Revolution by the English, and purported to be written by Washington to Lund Washington, to Mrs. Washington, and to John Parke Custis. The person who wrote them knew something of Washington's private affairs, but he made the American general say things which rep-resented him as opposed to the independence of the colonies. It was asserted that Washington in his retreat from New York left his servant Billy behind, and that these papers were found in a hand-bag which the valet carried. As it was well known in the army that Billy had never been captured, Washington did not then think it needful to deny having written these letters ; but when they were brought forward again by his enemies during the last years of his Presidency, he was alarmed lest they should go down to history as his own. Most of Washington's writings which are preserved show him to us only as a grave public character, and lives of Washington drawn mainly from this source are apt to make the great man seem unnaturally cold, dignified, remote, and impressive. So usual has this view of Washington become, that there is a common belief that he never laughed aloud—a belief which there are many stories to refute.

Washington had immense physical courage. In all the battles in which he fought he exposed himself fearlessly. His moral courage was even greater. He never shrank from doing what he thought right because it was likely to make him unpopular. Perhaps Washington's greatest qualities were his wisdom and prudence. These traits were very important in the leader of a young people engaged in a revolutionary struggle. He had few brilliant military successes, but it is impossible to say what he might not have done had he not been weighed down by immense difficulties. His influence over men was great, and those who were under him loved him. He was never swayed by mean motives, his actions were always honorable, and he was generous even to those who were his bitter opponents. Though he was a man of action, he thought deeply on many subjects. Never," said Jefferson, " did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great, and to place him in the same constellation with whatever worthies have merited from man an everlasting remembrance."

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