By John F. Di Leo –
Reflections on the anniversary of the death of General Washington
On December 12, 1799, General George Washington, at 67 years of age, was still a busy and healthy man.
Despite the snow and ice that day, he rode around his holdings at Mount Vernon, as was customary, checking on the ongoing projects, such as improvements to the main building and consideration of improvements to outbuildings, along with everything else that a busy plantation must do in the winter.
Even when the land shuts down for the season, there’s still work to do, when you make your own clothes for your staff of hundreds, when you cure your own meats in a smokehouse, when you make your own fabric for bedding…
The General operated Mount Vernon almost as a self-contained, self-sufficient city. They laundered the clothing and prepared the food for hundreds of people, and he truly made an honest effort (unlike many other plantation owners) to treat his mostly enslaved staff as well as possible.
The business had suffered considerably due to its CEO’s absenteeism in service to his country: eight years away fighting the War of Independence from 1775 through 1783… one season away presiding over the Constitutional Convention in 1787… another eight years away as first President of the United States from 1789 through 1797. He always left good, trusted people in charge while he was gone, with clear instructions… but if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself, so there was always much to be corrected whenever he returned.
He had built what was arguably one of the most successful businesses in the colonies by the early 1770s. For the rest of his life, each time he’d get it back up to par, he’d be pulled away again. Since he left the presidency in the spring of 1797, this year was only his second full year back to managing the place onsite, and he relished the role. George Washington was no resting retiree; he was finally back to the work he loved: riding his horse around his lands every morning, speaking with each work boss (the laundry, the mills, the kitchens, etc.), determining needed improvements for the following year, and entertaining guests.
And, oh, how he did entertain guests! In their “retirement years,” George and Martha Washington were the best hosts in America, with an open door and a beautiful dining room for leisurely dinners with visiting friends and dignitaries. In those days before the existence of Washington, DC, Mount Vernon was in the country, an estate near the respectable little town of Alexandria, but very far indeed from the big cities of the day – such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia. There were no hotels in the vicinity; if people came to dinner, the Washingtons put them up for the night.
So when he went riding on December 12, 1799, it wasn’t some old man over-exerting himself, it was a vigorous farmer and merchant, going to work, like any other day. He had just ridden to the aid of a neighbor’s fire that same week; he was in as good health as he’d ever been… until he caught cold, riding in what we would today call a “wintry mix” of snow and ice.
An odd thing, this. George Washington’s health had in fact been poor, many times in his life. Even in his youth, he’d always been susceptible to illnesses, having missed considerable time from the front, before and during the French and Indian War. He was physically strong, the tallest man on the tallest horse in most battles, an unmistakable target for the enemy, but he was never felled by bullet in battle (the Indians, in fact, said that he was charmed, impervious to shot or shell, and when you consider the opportunities, it is miraculous indeed that he survived his many battles unscathed).
But despite his physical power when healthy – he was the finest equestrian and even the best dancer in the country – he was as weak as anyone when struck ill.
On the 12th, he caught a chill. On the 13th,, a cold and snowy day, his chill had developed into a sore throat, and more. It’s been described as laryngitis, strep, a lot of things… most likely, it was epiglottis… an inflammation that made breathing and swallowing very difficult. If he didn’t beat it on his own, it would be fatal. Today, in all likelihood, a course of antibiotics would cure whatever it was, if caught early enough… but antibiotics were not to be invented for a century and a half.
The General was now bedridden, and with such difficulty breathing, they called for the surgeons.
Medical knowledge at the dawning of the 18th century was not what it is today. We think of our wonderful modern equipment, and antibiotics and other pharmaceuticals, as the critical advances since then, but in fact it starts even earlier than that, with diagnosis. The medical world still didn’t understand how the blood worked, how the brain worked, how the lungs worked. They had some ideas, but only the most basic. Much of medical practice in those days was still based on ideas the ancient Romans and Greeks had, two thousand years prior.
George Washington was as farsighted as anyone where medicine was concerned; his devotion to vaccines is legendary. As commander of the Continental Army, he mandated that all new recruits be inoculated before they could serve. Many questioned this new procedure, but he was adamant. As a result, throughout the War of Independence, our troops could operate at full strength, while the British and Hessian troops were almost always down a quarter, or even a third, suffering from smallpox. But that’s just one aspect of medical knowledge… so much of how our bodies work was still undiscovered and unknown.
1799 was just a decade after the infamous Doctors Riot in New York, when mobs attacked a medical school because the public so disapproved of the gruesome but critical practice of studying cadavers to figure out how the human body worked. Our understanding of the circulatory system, in particular, was almost nonexistent, and this was to cost the General most dearly: the practice of “bleeding” was still in vogue, and they drained half his blood – yes, half! – in his final day on earth, thanks to the antiquated popularity of this idiotic “cure” to evacuate the body of “ill humors.”
His doctors were honorable men – only doing what they knew, what they had been taught – but they were understandably lost, in this era before modern healthcare. Epiglottis would likely have been fatal then, no matter what was tried, but any chance at his body beating it on its own was ruined once they started giving him their country tonics and draining his body of blood.
Once the General expired, the nation went into mourning. He was the greatest man of his era, the primary mover in our nation’s cause for independence.
This cannot be stressed firmly enough… modern education gives the General short shrift. It is taught that he was the commander in chief during the Revolution, but people tend to assume that he was selected – unanimously! – as America’s first president under the Constitution, entirely because of that military service. Untrue!
Because of films like 1776, in which the General only speaks from an offstage distance, and because the great documents of the War of Independence were written by others, it is forgotten that George Washington was among the first patriots, not only one of the first to battle against British control, but also one of the first to work toward unification of the colonies.
As a military commander in Virginia, fighting hostile Indian tribes and French outposts, alongside English regulars and friendly Indians, George Washington became one of the most-travelled Americans of note. In a time when most people stayed in their own home towns, or at least, their own home colonies their entire lives, Washington was a surveyor and speculator, as well as a military leader. He traveled up and down the frontier, and saw the potential on the other side of the Alleghennies from a very young age. He met with political leaders in other unrelated states, and maintained correspondence for decades with such distant neighbors, aware from the start that American growth westward would require cooperation among the colonies. Such vision was absent from crown and parliament, and even from most of his fellow Continentals, most of whom never ventured a hundred miles west of the Atlantic coastline… but Washington’s vision was farseeing indeed.
Later, through long years as a legislator in the Virginia House of Burgesses, he was at the heart of the cause of liberty, cooperating with his friend and neighbor, George Mason, and many others as the colonies gradually developed their own identies independent of the mother country. When the coastwide boycott against England was begun in the northern states in the late 1760s, George Washington became its leader in the south. With one letter on April 5, 1769, he declared his stand on what he knew, even then, was bound to eventually lead to independence. When Virginia’s colonial governor followed the king’s orders and dissolved the legislature at Williamsburg that May, it was George Washington who led the House of Burgesses down the road to Raleigh Tavern, where Washington’s formal resolution that Virginia join the boycott was resoundingly passed.
When the colonies gathered in a Continental Congress, George Washington was naturally there to represent Virginia, but only briefly, as he was the logical choice to appoint as commander in chief when war came.
Without studying the man’s life, it’s understandable to assume that he rose during the war, as generals often do, proving himself as a key leader over the course of many battles. Washington is a different case; he had already been the best businessman, the primary military figure, one of the primary political leaders, and one of the key economic visionaries in the colonies, for years and years. He is known as the fhe Father of his Country, not only because he won us independence, led our Constitutional Convention, and showed us how a presidency could work… but also because he was one of the nation’s founders even before the war.
Washington didn’t write many great speeches; he wasn’t the polemicist of the era like Alexander Hamilton and Patrick Henry, George Mason and Tom Paine… but his long years of correspondence with political and business leaders all over the coast were just as important in the cause of uniting these colonies against England. He won the war, in part, because he had laid the ground for it long before, in peace.
And this is what prepared him for his successful terms as President, when that time finally came. He had built up decades of familiarity and trust, not just since the revolution by long before, and was therefore ready when he took that oath to lead the world into a new era.
A free and independent republic had never even been attempted on this scale before, but George Washington had a vision, and he was the one and only man who could deliver it. He survived infections, diseases, frontier skirmishes and world wars, so that he could serve his nation well as the first President.
He died on the very eve of a new century, an American century, just two weeks before the year 1800. He had done everything he could to prepare his beloved land for a future that he was himself not to enjoy, but he died secure in the knowledge that he done his best. No one ever served his nation so well, accomplished so much, or served as so great a role model.
Divine Providence ensured that he be spared, illness after illness, battle after battle, so that he could complete his service to mankind, before he moved on to his final reward. Thank Heaven for George Washington.
Copyright 2016 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicagoland-based Customs broker and international transportation trainer, writer, and actor. His columns are regularly found in Illinois Review. For more details about General Washington's final hours, see this account at Mount Vernon.
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