History Stories

The Founding Father left the presidency a healthy man, but then died from a sudden illness less than three years later.

George Washington’s final three years of life were not spent in typically relaxed retirement. Active until his last days at his Mount Vernon estate, Washington focused on making his plantation productive, getting his affairs in order and addressing a dilemma that had nagged at him for about a decade. It’s during these years that the nation's first president made decisions that would cement his legacy.

Among the first of these decisions was to retire. On September 17, 1796, President Washington informed the American people in an article printed in Philadelphia’s American Daily Advertiser that he would not be seeking a third presidential term. In what would become known as the Farewell Address, Washington instructed the new nation on how to carry on in his absence. After dedicating his life to the country's first 20 years, Washington was ready to leave Philadelphia and live out his days managing his Mount Vernon estate.

But Washington never expected to live long. The Washington men had a tendency to perish before the age of 50, according to Joseph Ellis, author of His Excellency. Even shortly after the Revolutionary War had ended, at the age of 51, Washington was convinced he was in his twilight years.

“It shall be my part to hope for the best; as to see this Country happy whilst I am gliding down the stream of life in tranquil retirement is so much the wish of my Soul, that nothing on this side Elysium can be placed in competition with it,” Washington wrote in a letter to Henry Knox on February 25, 1787. His “tranquil retirement” was postponed nearly 10 years, however, as he was called back to serve as the country’s first president.

Finally at age 65, Washington left Philadelphia for Mount Vernon. He knew the end was near—although he promised friends that he’d live into the new century.

Washington’s Retirement at Mt. Vernon

Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, located 13 miles south of what is now Washington, D.C., was built in 1734 by his father. Once Washington returned home, in addition to the nearly 11,000-square-foot mansion, he was responsible for five farms. In April 1797, these farms housed 123 horses, mules and asses, 680 cattle and sheep and about 300 slaves, according to Ellis.

George Washington speaking with his slaves at Mount Vernon, 1797.

George Washington speaking with his slaves at Mount Vernon, 1797.

Each day Washington would mount his horse and ride around to each part of his property for about six hours, checking on projects. He would then return from a long day of riding and prepare for dinner. But dinner was not usually relaxing for Washington.

“He was deluged with visitors who wanted to meet the first president,” explains Mary Thompson, a research historian at the Mount Vernon estate, now a museum. “Some of the visitors are family members, but a lot of them are complete strangers who would show up with a letter of introduction from a mutual friend. Martha and Washington were getting to the stage where they thought that was a little too much for them to deal with.”

According to the Mount Vernon estate, Washington received as many as 677 guests in 1798, the year before he died. The former president remained accessible to the American people right up to his death.

READ MORE: How George Washington's Iron-Willed Single Mom Taught Him Honor

Washington’s Agonizing End

On December 12, 1799, the weather was bone-chilling cold and alternating between rain, snow and sleet, according to Thompson, but Washington went ahead with his daily routine. He returned home a little later than usual, so his dinner guests had already arrived. Not wanting to be rude, Washington didn’t change out of his wet clothes. The next day, despite heavy snowfall and persistent cold, Washington trudged out again to assess improvements to Mount Vernon. That evening, Washington began to experience chest congestion.

In the early hours of December 14, he woke up Martha. He had a sore throat and was having trouble breathing. Dr. James Craik, Washington’s physician for more than 40 years, was sent for. As they awaited Craik, Washington was bled—a medical treatment common at the time that likely did more harm than good.

George Washington's Death

George Washington on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends in 1799.

Over the course of the day, two additional doctors were sent for. They tried everything: bleeding him multiple times, giving him herbal teas and an enema. Washington nearly choked to death when the doctors had him drink a concoction of molasses butter and vinegar. Craik also applied a toxic tonic to Washington’s inflamed throat to cause it to further blister (another misguided “cure” at the time).

They believed all of these remedies would draw the “bad humours” out of his blood, but nothing worked. The man known as the “father of our country” died sometime between 10 and 11 p.m. that evening.

According to Ron Chernow’s Washington, the former president was afraid of being buried alive. He requested on his deathbed that he not be put in the vault until at least three days after he died, and those wishes were honored. He was laid to rest at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799 at the age of 67.

The Last Will and Testament of George Washington

During the last years of Washington’s life he was preoccupied by a moral dilemma. At this time, there were 317 slaves at Mount Vernon and Washington personally owned 123. The majority of the other slaves on the property were from Martha’s first marriage to Daniel Custis. Washington felt uneasy about owning slaves as property.

In May 1794, in a letter to Tobias Lear, Washington expressed that he wanted to liberate his slaves, referring to his ownership of people as “repugnantly to his own feelings.”

“He knew that the values that he had been fighting for as a revolutionary were incompatible with slavery,” Ellis says. “He also knew that his own legacy would be affected by the position he took on that issue.”

George Washington's Family

A family portrait of George Washington with his wife Martha Washington, his step-grandson and adopted son George Washington Parke Custus, Martha's daughter Eleanore Park Custis, and William Lee, in the background, who was a slave to George Washington, the only slave immediately freed upon Washington's death.

Washington stated he wanted to free his 123 slaves upon Martha’s death, but it was not simple. Some of Washington's slaves had intermarried with Martha's slaves (whom Washington did not technically own). Freeing only his slaves, he wrote, could introduce "difficulties." 

“The picture was complicated, because in the 40 years that Martha [Custis] and Washington had been married, quite a few of the enslaved people that had belonged to George Washington had intermarried with the enslaved people that belonged to the Custis estate,” Thompson says.

READ MORE: Did George Washington Really Free Mount Vernon's Slaves?

Although Washington didn't have control over the freedom of the Custis slaves, he did stipulate in his will, which he wrote in July 1799, how his own slaves should be treated.

“I do hereby expressly forbid the Sale, or transportation out of the said Commonwealth, of any Slave I may die possessed of, under any pretence whatsoever,” he wrote.

Washington added that he expected the former slaves “shall be comfortably cloathed and fed by my heirs while they live.” He further instructed that his younger slaves be provided for until they were 25 and should be taught an occupation and learn how to read.

In the end, only one of Washington's slaves, William Lee, a Revolutionary War veteran, was immediately granted freedom upon Washington's death. Martha Washington then freed the remainder of her late husband's slaves, per her husband's wishes, about a year later.

As for Mount Vernon and the land he owned in West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania, Washington divided his estate between 23 heirs, effectively splitting all of his wealth. The majority of the former president's wealth was tied up in land, which made him one of the richest men in America. By dividing his land, Ellis says, Washington wanted to ensure his heirs would become self-reliant. 

Following Washington’s death, the Sixth Congress commissioned a eulogy, in which the nation’s founding father was remembered as, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

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