On Friday, the 13th of December, while attending to improvements on his estate, Washington was exposed to a light rain, by which his neck and hair became wet. Not apprehending danger from this circumstance, he passed the afternoon in the usual manner; but in the night was seized with an inflammatory affection of the windpipe. The disease commenced with a violent ague, accompanied with some pain in the upper and fore part of the throat, a sense of stricture in the same part, a cough, and a difficult deglutition, which were soon succeeded by fever, and a quick and laborious respiration.
Twelve or fourteen ounces of blood were taken from his arm, but he would not permit a messenger to be dispatched for his family physician until the appearance of day. About eleven in the morning, Doctor Craik arrived; and, perceiving the extreme danger of the case, requested that two consulting physicians should be immediately sent for. The utmost exertion of medical skill were applied in vain. The powers of life were manifestly yielding to the force of the disorder; speaking became almost impracticable, respiration became more and more contracted and imperfect, until half-past eleven on Saturday night, when, retaining the full possession of his intellect, he expired without a struggle.
During the short period of his illness he economized his time in arranging those few concerns which required his attention; and anticipated his approaching dissolution with every demonstration of that equanimity for which his life was so uniformly and singularly conspicuous.
The deep and wide-spreading grief occasioned by this melancholy event, assembled a great concourse of people for the purpose of paying the last tribute of respect to the first of Americans. His body, attended by military honors, and the ceremonies of religion, was deposited in the family vault at Mount Vernon on Wednesday, the 28th of December.
At the seat of government the intelligence of his death preceded that of his indisposition. On receiving it both Houses of Congress adjourned. On the succeeding day, as soon as the orders were read, the House of Representatives passed several resolutions expressive of their deep feeling for the illustrious deceased, the last of which directed, "that a committee in conjunction with one from the Senate, be appointed to consider on the most suitable manner of paying honor to the memory of the man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow citizens."
Immediately after the passage of these resolutions a written message was received from the President accompanying a letter from Mr. Lear,2 which he said, "will inform you that it had pleased divine providence to remove from this life our illustrious fellow citizen George Washington, by the purity of his life, and a long series of services to his country, rendered illustrious through the world. It remains for an affectionate and grateful people, in whose hearts he can never die, to pay suitable honor to his memory."
The members of the House of Representatives waited on the President in pursuance of a resolution which had been passed, and the Senate addrest a letter to him condoling with him on the loss the nation had sustained, in terms expressing their deep sense of the worth of the deceased. The President reciprocated, in his communications to each House, the same deep-felt and affectionate respect "for the most illustrious and beloved personage America had ever produced."
The halls of both Houses were shrouded in black, and the members wore mourning for the residue of the session. The joint committee which had been appointed to devise the mode by which the nation should express its feelings on this melancholy occasion, reported the following resolutions:
"That a marble monument be erected by the United States at the city of Washington, and that the family of General Washington be requested to permit his body to be deposited under it; and that the monument be so designed as to commemorate the great events of his military and political life.
"That there be a funeral procession from Congress Hall to the German Lutheran Church, in memory of General Washington, on Thursday the 26th instant, and that an oration be prepared at the request of Congress, to be delivered before both Houses on that day; and that the President of the Senate, and Speaker of the House of Representatives, be desired to request one of the members of Congress to prepare and deliver the same.
"That it be recommended to the people of the United States to wear crape on the left arm as a mourning for thirty days.
"That the President of the United States be requested to direct a copy of these resolutions to be transmitted to Mrs. Washington, assuring her of the profound respect Congress will ever bear to her person and character, of their condolence on the late affecting dispensation of Providence, and entreating her assent to the interment of the remains of General Washington in the manner exprest in the first resolution.
"That the President be requested to issue his proclamation, notifying to the people throughout the United States the recommendation contained in the third resolution."
These resolutions passed both Houses unanimously; and those which would admit of immediate execution were carried into effect. The whole nation appeared in mourning. The funeral procession was grand and solemn; and the eloquent oration, which was delivered by General Lee,3 was heard with profound attention and with deep interest. Similar marks of affliction were exhibited throughout the United States. In every part of the continent funeral orations were delivered, and the best talents of the nation were devoted to an expression of its grief.
To the letter of the President which transmitted to Mrs. Washington the resolutions of Congress, that lady answered: "Taught by the great example which I have so long had before me, never to oppose my private wishes to the public will, I must consent to the request made by Congress, which you have had the goodness to transmit to me; and in doing this, I need not, I can not say what a sacrifice of individual feeling I make to a sense of public duty."
The monument, however, has not been erected. That the great events of the political as well as military life of General Washington should be commemorated, could not be pleasing to those who had condemned, and who continued to condemn, the whole course of his administration. This resolution, altho it passed unanimously, had many enemies. That party which had long constituted the opposition, and which, tho the minority for the moment, nearly divided the House of Representatives, declared its preference for the equestrian statue which had been voted by Congress at the close of the war. The division between a statue and a monument was so nearly equal, that the session passed away without appropriation for either. The public feeling soon subsided, and those who quickly recovered their ascendency over the public sentiment, employed their influence to draw odium on the men who favored a monument; to represent that measure as a part of a general system to waste the public money; and to impress the idea that the only proper monument to the memory of a meritorious citizen was that which the people would erect in their affections. A man who profest an opinion in favor of the monument was soon branded with the mark of an anti-republican.4
General Washington was rather above the common size. His frame was robust, and his constitution vigorous. His figure created in the beholder the idea of strength united with manly grace.
His manners were rather reserved than free; tho on all proper occasions he could relax sufficiently to show how highly he was gratified by the charms of conversation, and the pleasures of society. His person and whole deportment exhibited an unaffected and indescribable dignity, unmingled with haughtiness, of which all who approached him were sensible; and the attachment of those who possest his friendship and enjoyed his intimacy, tho ardent, was always respectful.
His temper was humane, benevolent, and conciliatory; but there was a quickness in his sensibility to anything apparently offensive, which experience had taught him to watch and to correct.
In the management of his private affairs, he exhibited an exact yet liberal economy. His funds were not wasted on capricious and ill-examined schemes, nor refused to beneficial, tho costly improvements. They remained, therefore, competent to that expensive establishment which his reputation, added to a hospitable temper, had, in some measure, imposed upon him; and to those donations which real distress has a right to claim from opulence.
He had no pretensions to that vivacity which fascinates, or to that wit which dazzles, and frequently imposes on the understanding. More solid than brilliant, judgment rather than genius constituted the prominent feature of his character.
No man has ever appeared upon the theater of human action whose integrity was more incorruptible, or whose principles were more perfectly free from the contamination of those selfish and unworthy passions which find their nourishment in the conflicts of party. His ends were always upright, and his means always pure. He exhibits the rare example of a politician to whom wiles were absolutely unknown. In him was fully exemplified the real distinction between wisdom and cunning, and the truth of the maxim that "honesty is the best policy."
Neither the extraordinary partiality of the American people, the extravagant praises which were bestowed upon him, nor the inveterate opposition and malignant calumnies which he encountered, had any visible influence on his conduct. The cause is to be looked for in the texture of his mind.
In him, that innate and unassuming modesty which adulation would have offended, which the voluntary plaudits of millions could not betray into indiscretion, and which never obtruded upon others his claims to superior consideration, was happily blended with a high and correct sense of personal dignity, and with a just consciousness of that respect which is due to station. . . .
1 From Marshall's "Life of Washington," published in five volumes in 1804-07. Marshall was Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1801 to 1835 His home was on the Potomac in Virginia, near Mount Vernon.
2 Tobias Lear, Washington's private secretary.
3 General Henry Lee, surnamed "Light Horse Harry." He had served in the Revolution, and was now a member of Congress.
4 Marshall was writing in 1838. Out of this confused state of the public mind finally emerged the plans and construction of the present imposing monument to Washington near the White House.