Once again we open our Washington Notebook, this time to the final chapter. It was March 16th,1797,twelve days since John Adams had taken the Oath of Office as President, that the Washington family were finally able to begin the several day journey to Mt.Vernon, and be home at last.
For most of the time Washington was busily engaged in the activity he had always cherished, caring for Mt.Vernon and his family. He wrote in May of 1797 to a friend, “to repair houses going fast to ruin, to build one for the security of my papers of a public nature and to amuse myself with Agricultural and rural pursuits will constitute employment for the years I have to remain on this Terrestrial globe...”
Late in 1798, when war with France seemed possible , and after a visit from James McHenry,Secretary of War who carried a letter from President Adams, Washington agreed to again become Commander of the nation’s military forces, with the agreement that he could do this from his Virginia home.Fortunately,the war never materialized.
A high point in the family was reached when, on Washington’s 67 birthday,his beloved step-granddaughter Nelly Custis
was married to his dear nephew Lawrence Lewis . For the occasion , at the bride’s request, he had donned his Continental
buff and blue uniform, still a good fit.
That summer he decided that a new will was in order, Nelly and Lawrence were expecting a child and Washington wanted to be sure they were properly settled nearby.
He hand wrote a twenty-eight page will making sure all his wishes for his family, farm people and vast properties were properly set forth. It made good sense as every man of his age, even in good health, should have such a document.
Autumn of 1799 was a fine one, even though Washington’s last brother Charles died. He commented that he had been the first child of his father’s second marriage and now was the last.
In November ,when he escaped injury as he unexpectedly was unseated from his horse, family members recalled the prophecy of an old Indian chief, that he would lead a charmed life. This scare was soon put behind as Nelly gave birth to a daughter named Frances Parke Lewis, Martha’s first great granddaughter. December 1799.arrived A new century was upon them. What would it bring to their beloved Country and to the family they loved? A round of guests filled the first few days and on the 11th in the evening , warm for the time of year, Washington commented on the halo circling the moon. A coming storm he thought, would it be rain or snow ?
It was not unusual when the next morning he mounted his horse and rode out into a cold and blustery day for a look at the farms that were part of his Estate, It was December. 12, 1799. There was rain, then sleet and finally some snow. As he was an old soldier, probably little was thought of it. In fact, he went out again the next day on a hours circuit, but by nightfall was troubled by a sore throat and as the night of December, 13 wore on began to have trouble breathing. Despite desperate efforts of his doctors through the following day Washington realized he was facing death . He met it as he had lived his life saying ,” I am willing to go.” He was 67 when he died at 10:20 on the evening of December 14, 1799. The burial service, with honors by the local Virginia Militia and the eulogy delivered his own Anglican pastor ,was held at the family vault at Mt.Vernon. An eleven gun cannon salute ended the service.
The passing of this beloved leader was a shock to all, there had been no warning, Congress learned of his death before they knew he was ill,and after his burial had taken place. There was no system faster than the horse for carrying messages and so word spread like rings across water with the travelers, the circuit riding preachers, the wagon masters and the boats traveling the coast.
. The grief and sadness did something that Washington himself had not fully accomplished during his Presidency , uniting all in a common bond of loss that crossed all state lines and geographical divisions. John Adams issued an official proclamation on Jan.6 ,1800 setting Washington’s birthday, Feb.22 , as the day of national ceremonies to testify “to the grief”. . Public Eulogies, Orations and Prayers were suggested and a six- week mourning period was to commence.
From the southern fields to the rocky coast in the north , from the frontier towns of the west to the cities of the eastern ports Washington’s greatness in his roll as a military and political leader were proclaimed and the people mourned. We will travel about the, then, United States to learn what happened.
Our nation’s capital was then Philadelphia,they knew Washington well and determined to have a mock funeral service on Dec. 26. It was a large scale reproduction of the Mount Vernon service held nine days earlier. The words spoken by Congressman Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee are still remembered today,”first in war , first in peace ,and first in the hearts of his countrymen” Lee also remarked that the purity of Washington’s character “gave effulgence to his public virtues”.
The empty bier in Philadelphia was guarded for the next two months by sentries as the city mourned. All wondered if the unity citizens felt when Washington was their leader would now be sustained.
On December 21 the New York newspapers spread the word in black bordered headlines “Columbia Mourns”. Gouverneur Morris was asked to present a proper eulogy. He praised Washington’s wisdom and declared that his clear judgments were the result of a mind that was pure. The huge crowd listen and gave thunderous applause at the conclusion.
It took three days for the word to arrive in Boston from New York.Here the power of Washington’s leadership had special meaning. On January 9, businesses closed all over the city, ships flags were lowered to half-mast, cannon fired salutes and bells tolled. A estimared crowd of 6000 gathered and at precisely noon marched from the new State House through the streets, six abreast,the Old South Meeting House to hear George Richards Minot pay tribute to the beloved Washington.
Abigail Adams remarked that “History will not produce to us a parallel’. and “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy. She alone can render his fame immortal.” It was three weeks before the citizens of Lexington ,Kentucky which was 650 miles away from Philadelphia,heard the sad news. The town trustees voted to join a procession on following Saturday “out of respect for the Revolutionary hero George Washington, Commander -in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army of the United States of America” and “who then resumed his station as private citizen in 1783”.The theme of the American Cincinnatus , returning to the plow after saving his country,was used in many of the memorial observances members of that Society organized.
In Lexington,Virginia Liberty Hall, a school which Washington had endowed with $50,000 in his will ,had a procession and memorial service . The trustees changed the school's name to Washington Academy and voted to use the funds to make repairs, buy new library books and pay off its debts.
About the time Kentucky had learned of the death of our first President, England was also reacting with mixed feelings.
John Quincy Adams,in Europe, received the sad news on February 4,1800 . Napoleon ,too, paid honor to the American hero: French battle standards were draped in black, Washington’s bust was placed in the Tuileries beside other modern and ancient heros, eulogies were delivered in Paris.
A Dartmouth College student named Daniel Webster wrote to a friend early in February of 1800, wondering how the nation would go on,having lost what he termed “the great political cement”. Across the nation many were also pondering whether the still infant nation could survive.
Even today, there is no nation that has been blessed with greater founders than our own. One in particular, we remember at this time,on bended knee at Valley Forge. Turning to the One he called Divine Providence. Washington clearly believed that the events in his life ,as well as those of this the new Nation did not unfold by action or happenstance, but by divine design. From the time the bullets whistled past him in the wilderness of Ohio to his final days he believed a special presence had led him through every step and was paramount in the fortunes of his beloved country.
Truly, we were blessed with the leadership of this man, George Washington.
Let us remember and honor him on the 200th Anniversary of his death, December 14, 1999.