“I Feel Myself Going”: The Death of George Washington

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Photo by Smithsonian Magazine

After the Revolutionary War, George Washington eagerly awaited a quiet retirement as a gentleman farmer in Virginia. But this was not to be, as he was repeatedly called back to serve the needs of the infant nation he helped create.

When he was called to serve as the United States’ first president in 1789, Washington said on April 16 of that year, “my love of retirement is so great, that no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution ‘never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature.”

When Washington’s term was up. he was unanimously re-elected. This kept him away from his home, Mount Vernon, for another four long years. As war with France was looming on the horizon in 1798, Washington accepted command of American forces once again. However, this time around, his position was more ceremonial due to his advanced age.

President Washington and his wife Martha finally managed to make it to Virginia. Most of their time was consumed with making the long-neglected Mount Vernon livable and solvent once more. The General took an active role in running his plantation, overseeing the work and inspecting his property.

And he was doing just that on December 12, 1799, in a cold, miserable mixture of snow, sleet, and rain on horseback for several hours.

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Photo by Sensible Driver

The following day Washington didn’t feel very well, stating he had a sore throat. But he still rode out during a heavy snowfall to mark trees for cutting on his property. He was hoarse upon his return but made light of it to his wife and secretary.

When offered medicine, he shrugged it off, saying, “You know I never take anything for a cold. Let it go as it came.”

This only exacerbated Washington’s respiratory distress.

Next came that mainstay of medicine of the time — bloodletting. Washington was a big fan, but Mrs. Washington — not so much. So, as her husband was encouraging Rawlins to go for the gusto, the Missus was telling him to dial it back. Rawlins must have been very relieved when the three doctors who’d been summoned showed up.

Dr. James Craik, Washington’s personal physician and friend, arrived and bled him once more. He also administered another oral medication (with the same horrible results as before) and applied a poultice containing dried beetles.

Another physician, Dr. Dick, arrived at 3 p.m. and decided to bleed the General once more. The last doctor to arrive, Dr. Brown, showed up shortly after, and all three agreed to treat the patient rectally with calomel and tartar. Not surprisingly, Washington had had enough.

He told the three physicians, “I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions but I pray you take no more troubles about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long.”

It’s believed today that President Washington died of a septic sore throat secondary to acute edema of the larynx caused by a strep in infection. Dr. Dick suggested doing a radical new procedure called a tracheotomy to open the airway, but the technique was so new (and the patient so illustrious) that they stuck to tried and true treatments like blood-letting and beetles.

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Tomb of George and Martha Washington. Photo by MountVernon.org

Yeah. Worked like a charm.

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Kathy Copeland Padden

Written by

is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Kathy Copeland Padden

Written by

is a political junkie and history buff randomly alternating between bouts of crankiness and amusement while bearing witness to the Apocalypse. Come along!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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