Death of General George Washington; by John Marshall (Washington Biographer)
On Friday, the 13th of December, 1799, while attending to some improvements upon his estate, he was exposed to a slight rain, by which his neck and hair became wet. Unapprehensive of danger from this circumstance, he passed the afternoon in his usual manner; but in the night he 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, rather than a painful, deglutition, which were soon succeeded by a fever, and a quick and laborious respiration.
Believing bloodletting to be necessary, he procured a bleeder, who took from his arm twelve or fourteen ounces of blood; but he would not permit a messenger to be dispatched for his family physician until the appearance of day. About eleven in the morning, Dr. Craik arrived; and, perceiving the extreme danger of the case, requested that two consulting physicians should be immediately sent for. The utmost exertions of medical skill were applied in vain. The powers of life were manifestly yielding to the force of the disorder; speaking, which was painful from the beginning, 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.
Believing, at the commencement of his complaint, as well as through every succeeding stage of it, that its conclusion would be mortal, he submitted to the exertions made for his recovery rather as a duty than from any expectation of their efficacy. Some hours before his death, after repeated efforts to be understood, he succeeded in expressing a desire that he might be permitted to die without interruption. After it became impossible to get anything down his throat, he undressed himself, and went to bed, there to die. To his friend and physician, Dr. Craik, who sat on his bed, and took his head in his lap, he said with difficulty, “Doctor, I am dying, and have been dying for a long time; but I am not afraid to die.”
During the short period of his. illness, he economized his time in arranging, with the utmost serenity, 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. On Wednesday, the 18th of December, attended by military honours and the ceremonies of religion, his body was deposited in the family vault at Mount Vernon
So short was his illness, that, at the seat of government, the intelligence of his death preceded that of his indisposition. It was first communicated by a passenger in the stage to an acquaintance whom he met in the street, and the report quickly reached the house of representatives, which was then in session. The utmost dismay and affliction were displayed for a few minutes, after which a member stated in his place the melancholy information which had been received. This information, he said, was not certain, but there was too much reason to believe it true.
“After receiving intelligence,” he added, “of a national calamity so heavy and afflicting, the house of representatives can be but ill fitted for public business.” He therefore moved an adjournment. Both houses adjourned until the next day.
On the succeeding day, as soon as the orders were read, the same member addressed the chair, and afterwards offered the following resolutions :*
“Resolved, that this house will wait upon the president, in condolence of this mournful event.
“Resolved, that the speaker’s chair be shrouded with black, and that the members and officers of the house wear black during the session.
“Resolved, that a committee, in conjunction with one from the senate, be appointed to consider on the most suitable manner of paying honour to the memory of the Man first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”
* These resolutions were prepared by General Lee, and offered by John Marshall, the future biographer of Washington. The last sentiment in them has been often quoted and admired.—Ed.