On Thursday, December 12, 1799, George Washington was out and about astride his faithful steed overseeing the usual maze of activity at his home on the Potomac. It was a day not unlike any other since his departure from the political arena and subsequent return to Mount Vernon.
However, this day would soon take a decidedly nasty turn perhaps related, in part, to the mercurial nature of the weather. Late in the afternoon, a predictable winter snowfall degraded into a hail storm and then finally devolved into a cold, unpleasant rain.
In order to be on time for dinner, President Washington opted to remain in the same moisture-sodden clothing he had worn outside earlier that day. This may have proven to be a fatal mistake as the following day, he awoke with an inflamed throat.
But as was typical for this gentleman farmer, he chose to again venture out-of-doors to supervise various activities on the plantation while his condition rapidly worsened. By that evening, his usual oration of the daily newspapers was passed along to his military secretary, Tobias Lear.
At 2 a.m., Washington awoke in significant distress. But always the gentleman, he refused to allow his wife, Martha to leave their bedroom to summon help for him. She too had recently battled a cold and he, of course, was more concerned for her welfare than that of his own.
By daybreak, his breathing was labored; thus, a succession of doctors was beckoned to his bedside. They attempted the traditional treatments of the day, including blood letting and even mixing up a very viscous elixir that practically choked the already-compromised patient.
After many more hours of constant care, observation and unsuccessful treatments, Washington said the following to his trusted secretary:
“I find I am going; my breath cannot continue long. I believed from the first that it would be fatal. Do you arrange and record all my military letters and papers; arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than any one else, and let Mr. Rawlings finish recording my other letters, which he has begun.”
Not surprisingly, he then proceeded to express his gratitude to the three physicians who had labored so diligently to save his life. And then he simply asked to be “decently buried” and also requested that his body not “be put into the Vault in less than three days after (he) I am dead.”
Just a few hours shy of midnight on this day in 1799, arguably one of the greatest men to have ever lived, breathed his last mortal breath and left this world.
What can possibly be said about a man who accomplished what Washington did in his 67 years, all while eschewing the fame and notoriety the public seemed so determined to heap upon him?
He possessed a steely single-mindedness that would not be deterred or distracted for even a moment by the trappings of the world all around him. Yet he thoroughly enjoyed many recreational pursuits like dancing and even wagering, but they never clouded his judgment or the vision he had for America.
To the world George Washington will always be legend, but in his mind he was simply a man; a man who placed infinite value on the God-given right we all share to live free while in pursuit of the best that is within ourselves.
Though it’s been said before, it bears repeating: Let us all strive to keep the spirit of our greatest founding father alive. Long live liberty!
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