On This Day...
December 14, 1799, George Washington dies. On this day in 1799, George Washington dies of acute epiglottitis (throat inflammation), at age 68. George Washington has been acclaimed for 200 years as the indispensable man of our Revolution. But he secured immortality by insisting that he was dispensible. He asserted that the cause of liberty was larger than any individual.
George Washington was born at his father's plantation on Pope's Creek in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. His father, Augustine Washington, was a leading planter in the area and also served as a justice of the county court. Augustine's first wife, Janet Butler, died in 1729, leaving him with two sons, Lawrence and Augustine, Jr., and a daughter, Jane. The elder Augustine then married George's mother, Mary Ball, in 1731. George was the eldest of Augustine Washington's and Mary Ball's six children.
In 1735 Augustine moved the family up the Potomac River to another Washington home, Little Hunting Creek Plantation (later renamed Mount Vernon). In 1738 they moved again to Ferry Farm, a plantation on the Rappahannock River near Fredericksburg, Virginia, where George spent much of his youth. Little is known of Washington's childhood, and it remains the most poorly understood part of his life. Popular fables illustrating his youthful honesty, piety, and physical strength have long taken the place of documented fact. Some of these fables are more plausible than others. The story that Washington threw a silver dollar across the Potomac River -- an impossible feat -- had its origins in the recollections of a cousin that George could throw a stone across the much narrower Rappahannock River. But others, including the familiar story of Washington and the cherry tree, seem to have been invented by one of Washington's first biographers, Mason Locke Weems.
When George was eleven years old, Augustine died, leaving most of his property to George's older half brothers. The income from what remained was just sufficient to maintain Mary Washington and her children. As the oldest child remaining at home, George undoubtedly helped his mother manage the Rappahannock River plantation where they lived. There he learned the importance of hard work and efficiency.
Little is known about George's formal education. Commonly the children of Virginia gentry were taught at home by private tutors or in local private schools. Boys generally began their formal education around the age of seven with lessons in reading, writing, and basic arithmetic. Later they were taught Latin and Greek, as well as such practical subjects as geometry, bookkeeping, and surveying. Wealthy planters often sent their sons to England to finish their schooling, as was done with George's two elder half brothers, Lawrence and Augustine.
The death of his father, however, made schooling abroad an impossibility for George Washington. He may have attended a school near his home for the first few years. Later he went to another school, either in Fredericksburg, Stafford County, or Westmoreland County. He excelled in mathematics and learned the rudiments of surveying. But he was not taught Latin or Greek like many gentlemen's sons, and he never learned a foreign language. Nor did he attend college. His formal education ended around the age of 15.
Among the gentry class, strong social skills were also considered an essential part of a young man's or woman's education. After the death of their father, George began to spend a great deal of time with his older half brother, Lawrence, at his home, Mount Vernon. Lawrence became a mentor to his younger brother, tutoring him in his studies, teaching him social graces, and helping to introduce him into society.
Throughout his life, Washington regarded his education as defective. He consciously made up for some of what he did not learn in school through reading and study on his own. Over the years he amassed a large and diverse library, and in his later years he subscribed to several newspapers. He became a skilled and prolific writer. Perhaps as a result of his lack of formal education he strongly believed in the value of a good education and left money in his will for establishing a school in Alexandria, Virginia, as well as for establishing a national university.
In 1746 Lawrence proposed that George Washington join the British navy. Although George was excited at the idea of a military career, his mother refused her consent, and George was spared the harsh discipline of a life at sea. Despite missing the opportunity to travel the world, George Washington's young adulthood became one of the great adventure stories of American history.
Young Washington applied himself to surveying, a valuable skill in a colony where land was being settled constantly. In 1748 he joined a surveying expedition to western Virginia at the invitation of Lawrence's neighbors, the powerful Fairfax family. The next year the Fairfaxes helped secure him an appointment as a county surveyor. By the age of 17 he was well on his way to a successful and profitable career. In an effort to establish himself as a member of the gentry class, he worked hard, saved his money, and bought unclaimed land.
In 1751 he accompanied Lawrence, who was suffering from tuberculosis, on a voyage to the British island colony of Barbados. Lawrence hoped the tropical air would ease his suffering. While in Barbados, Washington saw some of the most extensive fortifications in British America and socialized with military men, experiences that probably stimulated his interest in military service. He also contracted smallpox. Though he recovered quickly, the illness may have rendered him sterile.
Lawrence died in 1752, and shortly thereafter George inherited Mount Vernon. He also obtained Lawrence's place in the Virginia militia and received a major's commission -- the first step in his military career.
In 1753 the Governor of Virginia, Robert Dinwiddie, learned that French troops had moved south from Canada and were constructing forts in the region south of Lake Erie, an area claimed by Virginia (but now in Western Pennsylvania). Both France and England recognized the commercial potential of the region. French trappers had been working in the area for some time, and Dinwiddie was concerned that the French troops would also fortify the forks of the Ohio -- the strategic point where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers join to form the Ohio River. This point, now Pittsburgh, was the eastern gateway to the Ohio Valley.
In the fall of 1753 Dinwiddie sent 21-year-old Major Washington to deliver a message to the French, demanding they leave the area. With the help of a frontier guide and local Indians, Washington reached the French fort, Dusquesne, with Dinwiddie's message. The return trip tested Washington's endurance. He hiked for days through snowy woods, fell off a raft into the ice-choked Allegheny River, nearly drowned, and was forced to spend a freezing night on an island without shelter. His guide, an experienced backwoodsman, suffered frostbite; but Washington suffered no ill effects. Washington's account of the arduous 900-mile journey was published by Governor Dinwiddie in both Williamsburg and London, establishing an international reputation for George Washington by the time he was 22.
A few months later Dinwiddie dispatched Washington, now a lieutentant colonel, and some 150 men to assert Virginia's claims. As they advanced, Washington's men skirmished with French soldiers, killing 10 men, including the French commander. Washington then retreated to an ill-placed and makeshift palisade he called Fort Necessity. He was forced to surrender when the French surrounded the fort. The campaign ended in humiliation for Washington and ignited the French and Indian War.
Although he resigned his commission after the surrender, Washington returned to the frontier in 1755 as a volunteer aide to General Edward Braddock. Braddock had been sent by the King of England to drive the French from the Ohio Country. Braddock's army was routed near the Monongahela River and fled in confusion to Virginia. During the battle, while attempting ro rally the British soldiers, Washington had two horses shot out from under him and four bullet holes shot through his coat. Although he behaved with conspicuous bravery, Washington could do little except lead the broken survivors to safety.
In recognition of his conduct, Washington was given command of Virginia's entire military force. With a few hundred men he was ordered to protect a frontier some 350 miles long. Although this was a frustrating assignment, it provided him with experience in commanding troops through an arduous campaign. In 1758 the British finally took the forks of the Ohio. Peace returned to Virginia, and Washington resigned his commission to return to Mount Vernon, his duty faithfully performed.
Although barely twenty-seven years old, he was the most experienced native military officer in Virginia. In 1759, upon marrying Martha Dandridge Custis, the young widow of one of the wealthiest men in the colony, he retired to his plantation with many of his early ambitions satisfied. He could hardly have imagined that his greatest adventures lay ahead.
George Washington spent the years between 1759 and 1775 as a gentleman farmer at Mount Vernon. He worked constantly to improve and expand the mansion house and its surrounding plantation. He established himself as an innovative farmer, who switched from tobacco to wheat as his main cash crop in the 1760's. In an effort to improve his farming operation, he diligently experimented with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock breeding. He also expanded the work of the plantation to include flour milling and commercial fishing in an effort to make Mount Vernon a more profitable estate.
Although most of this time was dedicated to his private affairs and family life with his wife, Martha, and her two children, Washington continued to participate in public life. He was elected to the House of Burgesses in 1758 (after being twice defeated) and served several terms. He viewed the growing disputes between Great Britain and her American colonies with deep concern. He was not a political firebrand, stirring orator, or cloakroom deal maker; but he impressed his peers as a modest dependable man of strength and good sense.
In the fall of 1774, Washington was chosen as one of seven Virginia representatives to the Continental Congress. Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, other delegates immediately recognized him as a man of patriotic views and sound judgment. At six feet three inches tall, he towered over the other delegates; and he had an athletic grace and commanding presence. Although Washington spoke very little in Congress, many of the delegates noticed what one called his, easy, soldier-like air.
In June 1775, Congress commissioned George Washington to take command of the Continental Army besieging the British in Boston. He wrote home to Martha that he expected to return safe to you in the fall. The command kept him away from Mount Vernon for more than 8 years.
His task was not overwhelming at first. The British position in Boston was untenable, and in March 1776 they withdrew from the city. But it was only a temporary respite. In June a new British army, under the command of Sir William Howe, arrived in the colonies with orders to take New York City. Howe commanded the largest expeditionary force Britain had ever sent overseas.
Defending New York was almost impossible. An island city, New York is surrounded by a maze of waterways that gave a substantial advantage to an attacker with naval superiority. Howe's army was larger, better equipped, and far better trained than Washington's. They defeated Washington's army at Long Island in August and routed the Americans a few weeks later at Kip's Bay, resulting in the loss of the city. Forced to retreat northward, Washington was defeated again at White Plains. The American defense of New York City came to a humiliating conclusion on November 16, 1776, with the surrender of Fort Washington and some 2,800 men. Washington ordered his army to retreat across New Jersey. The remains of his forces, mud-soaked and exhausted, crossed the Delaware River into Pennsylvania on December 7.
The British had good reason to believe that the American rebellion would be over in a few months and that Congress would seek peace rather than face complete subjugation of the colonies. The enlistments of most of Washington's army were due to expire at the end of December.
However, instead of crushing the remains of Washington's army, Howe went into winter quarters, with advanced garrisons at Trenton and Princeton, leaving Washington open to execute one of the most daring military operations in American history. On Christmas night Washington's troops crossed the Delaware and attacked the unsuspecting garrison at Trenton, forcing it to surrender. A few days later Washington again crossed the Delaware, outmaneuvered the force sent to crush him, and fell on the enemy at Princeton, inflicting a humiliating loss on the British.
Though the victories were not militarily decisive, this proved to be the pivotal moment of the war. Washington had inflicted little damage on the British army. Howe still enjoyed a numerical superiority, and there was nothing about these modest victories to suggest that the Americans were capable of defeating the British army in a pitched battle. Trenton and Princeton instead marked a watershed in the way George Washington conceptualized the war. He began to see it as a political problem as much as a military one. The enthusiastic response to the victories at Trenton and Princeton taught him the importance of public opinion to sustaining a popular war of resistance.
Washington had little conventional military education to discard. In an unconventional conflict, he learned from experiences that perplexed and frustrated his opponents. The truth of the situation -- that the American rebellion would not end until Washington's army was destroyed -- ran against the established conventions of European warfare. Howe never seems to have abandoned the belief that once the Americans were deprived of their major cities, the rebellion would wither. In the summer of 1777, he mounted an offensive against Philadelphia. Washington moved to defend the city and was defeated at the Battle of Brandywine. Philadelphia fell two weeks later. An American counterattack on the main British camp at Germantown, just outside Philadelphia, was repulsed -- but not without demonstrating that Washington and his army, even though outmaneuvered and outfought, still possessed considerable fighting spirit.
Gradually it occurred to the British high command that capturing Philadelphia meant very little. The supplies that had flowed to Washington's men through the city simply flowed to them through other channels. Rather than ceasing operations, Congress simply packed up and moved to another town. Philadelphia was no more essential to the American cause than was New York City. Howe was relieved of command early in 1778; and his replacement, Sir Henry Clinton, was ordered to evacuate Philadelphia.
Clinton decided to return from Philadelphia to New York by land in a rapid retreat through the unsparing heat of the Middle Atlantic summer. Meanwhile Washington planned a quick blow at Clinton's flank and attacked the British near Monmouth Court House, New Jersey. The Battle of Monmouth, although a tactical standoff, proved that the Continental Army could stand up to British regulars in the open field without the element of surprise. It also confirmed Washington's position as the pre-eminent American military leader and energized the patriot cause.
For much of the remainder of the war, Washington's most important strategic task ws to keep the British bottled up in New York. Although he never gave up hope of retaking the city, he was unwilling to risk his army without a fair prospect of success. An alliance with France and the arrival of a French army under the Comte de Rochambeau in July 1780 renewed Washington's hopes to recapture New York; however, together Washington and Rochambeau commanded about 9,000 men -- some 5,000 fewer than Clinton. In the end, therefore, the allied generals concluded, that an attack on New York could not succeed.
Instead they decided to strike at the British army under Cornwallis, which was camped at Yorktown, Virginia. Washington's planning for the Battle of Yorktown was as bold as it had been for Trenton and Princeton but on a much larger scale. Depending on Clinton's inactivity, Washington marched south to lay siege on Cornwallis. On October 19, 1781, he accepted the surrender of Cornwallis's army. Although two more years passed before a peace treaty was completed, the victory at Yorktown effectively brought the Revolutionary War to an end.
To the world's amazement, Washington had prevailed over the more numerous, better supplied, and fully trained British army, mainly because he was more flexible than his opponents. He learned that it was more important to keep his army intact and to win an occasional victory to rally public support than it was to hold American cities or defeat the British army in an open field. Over the last 200 years revolutionary leaders in every part of the world have employed this insight, but never with a result as startling as Washington's victory over the British.
On December 23, 1783, Washington presented himself before Congress in Annapolis, Maryland, and resigned his commission. Like Cincinnatus, the hero of Classical antiquity whose conduct he most admired, Washington had the wisdom to give up power when he could have been crowned a king. He left Annapolis and went home to Mount Vernon with the fixed intention of never again serving in public life. This one act, without precedent in modern history, made him an international hero.
In the years after the Revolutionary War, Washington devoted most of his time to rebuilding Mount Vernon, which had suffered in his absence. He experimented with new crops and fertilizers and bred some of the finest mules in the nation. He also served as president of the Potomac Company, which worked to improve the navigation of the river in order to make it easier for upstream farmers to get their produce to market.
Although Washington longed for a peaceful life at Mount Vernon, the affairs of the nation continued to command his attention. He watched with mounting dismay as the weak union created by the Articles of Confederation gradually disintegrated, unable to collect revenue or pay its debts. He was appalled by the excesses of the state legislatures and frustrated by the diplomatic, financial, and military impotence of the Confederation Congress. By 1785 Washington had concluded that reform was essential. What was needed, he wrote to James Madison, was an energetic Constitution.
In 1787, Washington ended his self-imposed retirement and traveled to Philadelphia to attend a convention assembled to recommend changes to the Articles of Confederation. He was unanimously chosen to preside over the Constitutional Convention, a job that took four months. He spoke very little in the convention, but few delegates were more determined to devise a government endowed with real energy and authority. My wish, he wrote, is that the convention may adopt no temporizing expedients but probe the defects of the Constiution to the bottom and provide a radical cure.
After the convention adjourned, Washington's reputation and support were essential to overcome opposition to the ratification of the proposed Constitution. He worked for months to rally support for the new instrument of government. It was a difficult struggle. Even in Washington's native Virginia, the Constitution was ratified by a majority of only one vote.
Once the Constitution was approved, Washington hoped to retire again to private life. But when the first presidential election was held, he received a vote from every elector. He remains the only President in American history to be elected by the unanimous voice of the people.
Washington served two terms as President. His first term (1789-1793) was occupied primarily with organizing the executive branch of the new government and establishing administrative procedures that would make it possible for the government to operate with the energy and efficiency he believed were essential to the republic's future. An astute judge of talent, he surrounded himself with the most able men in the new nation. He appointed his former aide-decamp, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury; Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State; and his former artillery chief, Henry Knox, as Secretary of War. James Madison was one of his principal advisors.
In his First Inaugural Address, Washington confessed that he was unpracticed in the duties of civil administration; however, he was one of the most able administrators ever to serve as President. He administered the government with fairness and integrity, assuring Americans that the President could exercise extensive executive authority without corruption. Further, he executed the laws with restraint, establishing precedents for broad-ranging presidential authority. His integrity was most pure, Thomas Jefferson wrote, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motive of interest or consanguinity, friendship, or hatred, being able to bias his decision. Washington set a standard for presidential integrity rarely met by his successors, although he established an ideal by which they all are judged.
During Washington's first term the Federal Government adopted a series of measures proposed by Alexander Hamilton to resolve the escalating debt crisis and established the nation's finances on a sound basis, concluded peace treaties with the southeastern Indian tribes, and designated a site on the Potomac River for the permanent capital of the United States. But as Washington's first term ended, a bloody Indian war continued on the northwestern frontier. The warring tribes were encouraged by the British, who retained military posts in the northwest. Further, the Spanish denied Americans use of the Mississippi River. These problems limited the westward expansion to which Washington was committed.
Growing partisanship within the government also concerned Washington. Many men in the new government -- including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other leaders of the emerging Republican party -- were opposed to Hamilton's financial program. Washington despised political partisanship but could do little to slow the development of political parties.
During his first term Washington toured the northern and southern states and found that the new government enjoyed the general support of the American people. Convinced that the government could get along without him, he planned to step down at the end of his first term. But his cabinet members convinced him that he alone could command the respect of members of both burgeoning political parties. Thomas Jefferson visited Washington at Mount Vernon to urge him to accept a second term. Although longing to return home permanently, Washington reluctantly agreed.
Washington's second term (1793-1797) was dominated by foreign affairs and marred by a deepening partisanship in his own administration. Washington assumed the Presidency on the eve of the French Revolution, a time of great international crisis. The outbreak of a general Europen war in 1793 forced the crisis to the center of American politics. Washington believed the national interest of the United States dictated neutrality. War would be disastrous for commerce and shatter the nation's finances. The country's future depended on the increase in wealth and opportunity that would come from commerce and westward expansion. One of Washington's most important accomplishments was keeping the United States out of the war, giving the new nation an opportunity to grow in strength while establishing the principle of neutrality that shaped American foreign policy for more than a century.
Although Washington's department heads agreed that the United States should remain neutral, disagreements over foreign policy aggravated partisan tensions among them. The disagreements were part of the deepening division between Federalists and Republicans. Opposition to federal policies developed into resistance to the law in 1794 as distillers in Western Pennsylvania rioted and refused to pay taxes. Washington directed the army to restore order, a step applauded by Federalists and condemned by Republicans.
Partisan tensions reached a height during the last years of Washington's Presidency. To secure peace with Britain, Washington sent Chief Justice John Jay to London to negotiate a treaty. The treaty was extremely unpopular with Republicans, who charged that Washington himself had become a tool of Britain. Few things ever troubled Washington more deeply than these attacks on his character.
Despite Washington's disappointment with the rise of partisanship, the last years of his Presidency were distinguished by important achievements. The long Indian war on the northwest frontier was won, Britain surrendered its forts in the northwest, and Spain opened the Mississippi to American commerce. These achievements opened the West to settlement.
By 1796, Washington was ready for retirement, and no one could persuade him to accept a third term. With the help of Alexander Hamilton, he composed his Farewell Address to the American people, which urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Untion and avoid partisanship and permanent foreign alliances. In March 1797, he turned over the government to John Adams and returned to Mount Vernon, determined to live his last years as a simple gentleman farmer.
In 1798, events conspired to draw him again into the public arena. President John Adams named Washington commanding general of a provisional army that would be raised to defend the country against a perceived French invasion. For several months Washington devoted himself to organizing the officer corps; however, he refused to assume another public role and rejected a suggestion that he stand for President again in 1800.
On December 12, 1799, Washington was caught out in sleet and snow while riding over his farms. The resulting illness progressed rapidly, and Washington suffered with a throat inflammation that made breathing extremely painful. Doctors arrived early on the morning of December 14 but could do little to ease his pain. He faced death with characteristic courage, saying, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. With his wife at his side, George Washington died at around 10:00 p.m. on December 14, 1799. Four days later a solemn funeral was held at Mount Vernon.
As news of Washington's death spread, the nation plunged into mourning. Major cities and small towns alike held mock funerals. Hundreds of eulogies and orations lamented the loss of the great and good Washington. Although many feared his loss, Washington firmly believed that the new nation had developed the character and strength to survive.
He wrote, It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn. This call to his fellow citizens was meant for each of us as well.
References on George Washington's last illness and medical history: