The Great American History Tour: Mount Vernon

by Derrick G. Jeter

Thursday, 3 July 2008


George Washington was, from the beginning of the American republic, the embodiment of America herself. He led the Continental Army for eight years (1775–1783), mostly through defeat, to one glorious victory at Yorktown and independence. He shepherded a contentious Constitutional Convention, as the presiding officer, in developing the document that birthed the American republic. He served as the first President of the United States, and the only president elected unanimously—twice (1789 and 1793).


Desiring to retire to his “vine and fig tree” at Mount Vernon—a reference to 1 Kings 4:25 that speaks of safety, prosperity, and contentment—Washington left Philadelphia and the presidency on March 4, 1797. Returning to Mount Vernon, Washington, sadly, could only attend to his farm and trees for two years before his death.


On Thursday, December 12, 1799, at mid-morning, Washington, as was his custom, rode out to oversee the farm. While riding, the weather turned foul. Returning to the house later in the day, his coat and hair covered with snow and his boots splattered with mud, he ate his dinner. Friday morning, a heavy snow fall kept Washington in. When the weather calmed down in the afternoon, and despite a sore throat, Washington walked out between the house and the Potomac River to mark trees for removal. Later that evening, his personal secretary, Tobias Lear, encourage Washington to take something for his cold. Washington disregarded the advice with, “Let it go as it came.”


In the early morning of Saturday, December 14, Washington woke Mrs. Washington and told her he was ill and had a ragging fever. Preventing Mrs. Washington to call anyone until sunrise, she summoned Lear as soon as the sun broke the horizon. Lear sent dispatches for doctors to come immediately. But before the doctors arrived, Washington instructed Lear to bring in Mr. Rawlins, an overseer, to bleed him. Rawlins faltered. Washington reassured him, “Don’t be afraid.” Dr. Craik arrived around 8 or 9 o’clock and bleed Washington again and applied a blister. When Drs Dick and Brown arrived at 3:00 the president was bled again. Sometime after 4 o’clock Washington asked Mrs. Washington to retrieve his two wills. Giving one back, he told her to burn it. Turning to Lear, Washington said: “I find I am going, my breath cannot last long; I believed from the first that the disorder would prove fatal. Do arrange & record all my late military letters & papers[;] arrange my accounts and settle my books, as you know more about them than anyone else.” Washington’s prophecy was correct. Lingering throughout the afternoon and evening, Washington at one point told his doctors: “I feel myself going, I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you take no more trouble about me, let me go off quietly; I cannot last long.” Between 10:00 and 11:00 Washington told Lear, “I am just going! Have me decently buried; and do not let my body to be put into the vault less than three days after I am dead … ’tis well!”


With Mrs. Washington sitting at the foot of his bed, Washington placed his hand on his wrist, felt his pulse, and then quietly died shortly before midnight.


George Washington died like a gentleman—with dignity and nobility. On Wednesday, December 18, Washington was laid to rest under his “vine and fig” at his beloved Mount Vernon. The following day, Washington’s old friend, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, mourned him dead: “Our Washington is no more. The Hero, the Sage, and the Patriot of America—the man on whom in times of danger every eye was turned, and all hopes were placed—lives now only in his own great actions and in the hearts of an affectionate and afflicted people.”


To see Mount Vernon today is to see it as Washington left it. The mansion still sits majestically on the banks of the Potomac River, its striking red roof and cupola inviting visitors to sit on the piazza and look across the river to the wooded hills of Maryland. Its barns and out buildings remind the visitor of a bustling plantation. The mansion’s rooms speak of the Washington’s hospitality and gentility. And the master bedroom harkens back to that mournful night of December 14, 1799.


Down the hill from the mansion is the tomb. When you visit, be sure to pass in review and pay your respects to President and Mrs. Washington. In the quietness of that place, you’ll understand why he was so anxious to get back to his “vine and fig.”