History, History Column

George Washington’s Death and Holiday

by Sarah Becker ©2017

George Washington’s Death and Holiday

“Remembering that all must die…I hope you will bear the misfortune with that fortitude and complacency of mind, that become a man and a Christian,” General George Washington wrote in 1777.  Washington died at home on December 14, 1799, at age 67.  His death surprised the nation.

On the morning of December 12, 1799, Washington departed on horseback to inspect his Mount Vernon property.  It was a bad weather day; he rode in rain, hail and snow.  When he returned home for dinner “his neck appeared to be wet, and the snow was hanging from his hair.”  He sat down to eat rather than change his clothes.

The next day Washington complained of sickness. His wife Martha noticed he could barely speak, was hoarse and having trouble breathing.  The cold and snow continued; Martha’s request for medical help denied.

General Washington was stricken with inflammatory quinsy.  A variety of home and physician remedies were administered, including a mixture of molasses, vinegar and butter…sal volatile…blister of cantharides…sage tea and  vinegar…calomel, as well as tartar emetic.  None eased the inflammation.

Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, age 37, one of two Alexandria doctors called for consultation, recommended a tracheotomy to ease the General’s breathing.  Dr. James Craik, age 70, and Maryland’s Dr. Gustavus Brown refused his advice.  Instead Dr. Craik bled Washington for the fourth time, taking five pints of blood in total.

Soon after General Washington summoned wife Martha to his side.  He requested two documents, burned one and placed the other, his chosen will and testament in her closet.

“I die hard, but I am not afraid to go…My breath cannot last long,” Washington told Drs. Craik, Dick and Brown.  He then “bid adieu to Sublunary Scenes.”

“It is with inexpressible grief, that I have to announce to you the death of the great and good General Washington,” Tobias Lear, Washington’s Secretary wrote on December 15, 1799.  In his death, the nation found its soul.

“…It has pleased Divine Providence to remove from this life our excellent fellow-citizen, George Washington, by the purity of his character and a long series of services to his country rendered illustrious through the world,” President John Adams replied.  “It remains for an affectionate and grateful people, in whose hearts he can never die, to pay suitable honors to his memory.”

Washington’s body was first taken to the Mansion’s large dining room.  There it was placed in a lead lined, mahogany casket constructed by Alexandria cabinetmaker Joseph Ingle.  The burial, however, was delayed three days.

“The family vault at Mount Vernon requiring repairs, and being improperly situated besides, I desire that a new one of Brick, and upon a larger Scale, may be built at the foot of what is commonly called the Vineyard Inclosure, on the ground which is marked out,” General Washington willed.  “In which my remains,…may be deposited.  And it is my express desire that my Corpse may be Interred in a private manner, without parade, or funeral oration.”

On December 18, 1799, the day of Washington’s funeral, the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned; the Virginia House of Delegates each wore “a badge of mourning,” and the State Society of the Cincinnati of Virginia Resolved to “wear a black crepe on the left arm for three months.”

The funeral service included a procession, Masonic ritual and prayer.  “George Town, Dec. 20.  In the long and lofty portico, where oft the hero walked in all his glory, now lay the shrouded corpse.  The countenance still composed and serene, seemed to express the dignity of the spirit which lately dwelt in that lifeless form.  Then those who paid the last sad honors to the benefactor of his country took an impressive, a farewell view…Between 3 and 4 o’clock the sound of artillery from a vessel in the [Potomac] river firing minute guns awoke afresh our solemn sorrow.  The procession moved in the following order: Cavalry, Infantry, and Guard with arms reversed; The General’s horse with his saddle, holsters and pistols; The Corpse including Cols. Simms, Ramsey, Payne, Gilpin, Marstellu, and Little; Mourners, Masonic Brethren and Citizens.  When the procession had arrived…where the family vault is placed, the cavalry halted…and the funeral services of the Church were performed…The Son of Glory was set forever.”

Wife Martha and granddaughter Nelly Custis did not participate.  They remained secluded in the mansion.  Martha was consumed with grief.

On December 23, 1799, the U.S. Congress “Resolved…That a marble monument be erected by the United States, in the Capital, at the city of Washington, and that the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it….”

“Our country mourns her father,” Samuel Livermore [F-NH], President of the Senate pro tempore explained. “The Almighty Disposer of Human Events has taken from us our greatest benefactor and ornament.  It becomes us to submit with reverence to him who maketh darkness His pavilion…The scene is closed, and we are no longer anxious lest misfortune should sully his glory.  He has traveled on to the end of his journey and carried with him an increasing weight of honor.  He has deposited it safely, where misfortune can not tarnish it, where malice can not blast it…Thanks to God, his glory is consummated.  Washington yet lives on earth in his spotless example; his spirit is in Heaven.”

“I cannot but be sensible to the mournful tributes of respect and veneration, which are paid to the memory of my dear deceased Husband,” Martha Washington responded.  Taught by great example, she consented.  As of 1878 only “the present speckled stone obelisk” stood.

On January 6, 1800, Congress, and in turn President John Adams “recommended to the People of the United States to assemble on the twenty-second day of February [Washington’s birth date], in such numbers and manner as may be convenient, publicly to testify their grief for the death of General George Washington….”

“For his fellow-citizens, if their prayers could have been answered, he would have been immortal,” President Adams told the Gentlemen of the Senate.  “His example…will teach wisdom and virtue to magistrates, citizens, and men, not only in the present age, but in future generations as long as our history shall be read.  If a Trajan [Roman Emperor] found a Pliny [Roman consul and writer], a Marcus Aurelius can never want biographers, eulogists, or historians.”

Mason Locke [Parson] Weems of Dumfries, Virginia, cousin of Dr. James Craik, was Washington’s first biographer.  He sent Martha Washington a copy of his 80-page pamphlet, The Life and Memorable Actions of George Washington, shortly after the General’s death.  Weems enticed his publisher with the prediction that “it will sell like flax seed at quarter of a dollar.”  Twenty-nine editions had been published by 1825, Weems’ death year, including the fifth edition’s fictitious cherry tree yarn.

“Our Country having lost a Citizen in the late illustrious George Washington, the able, successful and heroic Leader of our Armies during the Revolutionary War, which gave us independence; the late wife, moderate and pacific President of the United States, whose unsullied Virtue, Wisdom and Magnanimity in discharging the duties of his public functions…were at once an elevated Example…We Deem It…a generous emulation of exalted Merit, to adopt a plan…to preserve in our minds…an animated recollection of those virtues which so eminently contributed to his Glory,” The Constitution of the Washington Society of Alexandria stated in 1800.  “The 22d of February shall be considered and observed as AN ANNIVERSARY…on this day, in each year.”

“Where shall I begin in opening to your view a character throughout sublime?” U.S. Representative and former Continental Army cavalryman Henry “Light-horse Harry” Lee [F-VA] asked a joint session of Congress on December 26, 1799.  The federal holiday, legal since 1879 was moved to the third Monday in February in 1968.  Alexandria’s 2018 celebratory parade is scheduled for February 19.

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.

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