December 14, 1799 – The Death of George Washington

Catching a cold was a dangerous thing to do in the days before modern medicine.

On the morning of December 12, George Washington went out riding on his horse, as he generally did, to check up on his farm. Snow began to fall and turned to cold rain, and the General caught a cold.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart

The next morning he was worse, and Martha sent for Tobias Lear, the manager of Washington’s plantation, and for doctors. In the meantime, Washington sent for his clerk, Albin Rawlins, who was experienced in bleeding sick slaves. Rawlins made an incision on Washington’s arm, and the bleeding began. The first doctor arrived, and bled him again, and when his regular physician, Dr. Craik, came, he also bled Washington. They tried to bleed him a fourth time, but he had already lost more than five pints of blood, and was dehydrated and almost in shock.

The doctors, at a loss as to why Washington was not improving after all that bleeding, then administered a mix of mercurous choride and tartar emetic, both now known to be poisonous. Washington was then able to add severe cramping and diarrhea to his list of complaints. By four o’clock that afternoon, Washington was asking that the wills from his desk be brought to him. He asked Martha to burn one, and to put the other away for safekeeping. He told Tobias Lear “I find I am going” and insisted that Lear promise that his body would not be put into the burial vault “in less than two days after I am dead.” (…just in case…) Shortly after midnight, he was gone.

Washington could not free his slaves upon his own death, because his and those from Martha’s dower were now intermixed by marriage, but he did provide for them to be freed upon Martha’s death. Martha became rather anxious about her own safety as the slaves became acquainted with the terms of her husband’s will, and freed them all herself a year after Washington died. (For more details on the slaves the Washingtons owned, and what became of them, an excellent source is the online site of “The Papers of George Washington,” working to publish comprehensive letterpress and digital editions of Washington’s correspondence, such as this list of slaves from 1799.)

You can read about these and other personal details of Washington’s life in the book The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life by Harlow Giles Unger.

This book is of interest to flesh out the plethora of mostly political portraits of Washington. In Washington’s private life, he was extremely conscious of appearances, obsessed with details, driven by land acquisition, and was a caring if smothering parent to the many “strays” he and Martha accumulated. He and Martha both loved acquiring and displaying the trappings of elegance; often his political forays were preceded by shopping trips. Washington also was a first-rate innovator in agricultural technology, and frequently bonded with others on the basis of shared interests in animal breeding and/or plant cultivation.

A very few political stories are included, but they are notable, such as Washington’s institution of decision-making by agreement of the whole cabinet rather than allowing various department heads to exercise their portfolios. Unger points out how this came about from Washington’s frustration over the infighting between Hamilton and Jefferson. Unger also argues (following John Adams) that it was mainly the outbreak of yellow fever in New York that prevented a French-inspired revolution against the new nation. (Jay Winik in his book The Great Upheaval also noted the very strong effect the French Revolution had on this country.)

I wouldn’t make this the only book one reads about Washington, but if you’re into details about the daily lives of the Founding Fathers, this book fills the bill.

Published by Wiley, 2006


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