Henry Lee Eulogizes George Washington

by Derrick G. Jeter

Henry Lee joined the Virginia cavalry, with the rank of captain, at the age of 22 in order to fight for American independence. In 1777, he was promoted to major and placed under the command of fellow Virginian, George Washington. As a cavalry officer under Washington, Lee distinguished himself with his daring raids against the British army. One such raid, the capture of Paulus Hook (now Jersey City), in New Jersey, on August 19, 1779, earned him reputation and reward. He received the moniker “Lighthorse Harry,” promotion to lieutenant colonel and a gold medal from Congress. (Lighthorse Harry passed on his military brilliance to his posterity, the Confederate genius, General Robert E. Lee.)
After the war, Lee served as a member of the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1788, and supported the adoption of the Constitution. He served as governor of Virginia from 1791 to 1794 and a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1799 to 1801. As a member of Congress, but also as a friend of George Washington, Lee delivered a eulogy to both houses of Congress on December 26, 1799, two weeks after the death of his friend and mentor.
The death of Washington hit the country as an icy blast in the face. On Thursday, December 12, 1799, at mid-morning, Washington, as was his custom, rode out to oversee his 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, encouraged Washington to take something for his cold. Washington disregarded the advice with a wave of the hand, “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 at first faltered, but Washington reassured him: “Don’t be afraid.” Dr. Craik arrived around 8 or 9 in the morning and bleed Washington again, applying a blister. When Drs Dick and Brown arrived at 3:00 that afternoon the president was bled again. Sometime after 4 Washington asked Mrs. Washington to retrieve his two wills. Giving one back to her, 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 and 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 p.m. 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!”
In his well-written biography, Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, Richard Brookhiser records that, “Washington died the death of civility. . . . Several times he motioned for Christopher, the servant who stood by the bed, to sit. But Christopher, who had been at his post since morning, remained on his feet. It was as if master and slave were engaged in a contest of civilities, which the slave was determined not to lose.” 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 Mt. 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.” As eloquent as Marshall’s eulogy was of Washington, it did not reach the heights of Lee’s eulogy of the man who was “First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”
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First in war—first in peace—and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate, and sincere; uniform, dignified, and commanding, his example was edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.
To his equals he was condescending, to his inferiors kind, and to the dear object of his affections exemplary tender; correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence, and virtue always felt his fostering hand; the purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.
His last scene comported with the whole tenor of his life—although in extreme pain, not a sigh, not a groan escaped him; and with undisturbed serenity he closed his well-spent life. Such was the man America has lost—such was the man for whom our nation mourns.
Methinks I see his august image, and I hear falling from his venerable lips these deep-sinking words:
“Cease, sons of America, lamenting our separation; go on, and confirm by your wisdom the fruits of our joint councils, joint efforts, and common dangers; reverence religion, diffuse knowledge throughout your land, patronize the arts and sciences; let liberty and order be inseparable companions. Control party spirit, the bane of free governments; observe good faith to, and cultivate peace with, all nations, shut up every avenue to foreign influence, contract rather than extend national connection, rely on ourselves only: be Americans in thought, word, and deed—thus will you give immortality to that union which was the constant object of my terrestrial labors; thus will you preserve undisturbed to the latest posterity the felicity of a people to me most dear, and thus will you supply (if my happiness is now aught to you) the only vacancy in the round of pure bliss high heaven bestows.”