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George Washington

Curtain Call, Death, Legacy

The Presidency, Second Term

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics


Though Washington had accumulated many enemies over his eight years as president, when he retired all was forgotten. People hailed him as a hero. He attended the inauguration of the new president, John Adams, in a simple black coat. He sat in the corner. Adams was dressed splendidly, ready to take office, but no one seemed too interested in Adams: all eyes were on Washington.

Washington returned home to Mount Vernon to find, again, that it had declined in his absence. He went to work trying to fix it up, and quickly made it profitable again. Yet he lacked the energy he used to have. He also seemed to lose some of his judgment; where he had always been polite and gentlemanly before, he now sometimes became violently angry. He realized that his mind was deteriorating.

President Adams was soon faced with an emergency: war with France seemed imminent. Congress passed a resolution to raise an army. There was no question as to who would lead it. Washington reluctantly took command. Soon, however, he fell to bickering with Adams over who would be his generals. His behavior was erratic. Fortunately the threat of war passed, and before Washington had a chance to make a bigger fool out of himself the army disbanded.

In his final days, Washington was lonely. Martha was ill and could not provide much company. Many of his best friends were dead or had turned on him. He sensed the end was near. It came on December 12, 1799. Washington had been out riding in poor weather and returned feeling ill. Soon he was bedridden. His doctors bled him, a practice common at the time, which only made him weaker. On December 14, he died.

The entire nation mourned. The new country had never seen such an outpouring of grief. Nearly every one of Washington's former enemies came forward to affirm the man's greatness. Henry Lee, a fellow Virginia planter, spoke the words at Washington's funeral that have since become famous. Washington, he said, was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

Even in death Washington managed to be extraordinary. In his will, he ordered that his slaves be freed and commanded that elderly slaves receive a pension from his estate. The children were to be educated in local schools. This was radical: the whole economy and society of the south depended on slavery. Famous patriots such as Jefferson and Madison talked loudly of freedom while owning slaves, but none of these men freed their slaves in life or death–only Washington.


Washington's old age was a tragic time for him. He felt isolated from his friends and from the society in which he had been raised. By the end of his life, he had relatively little in common with his fellow planters. He had seen the country and was convinced of the importance of the federal government. He sympathized with Hamilton's plans to build a powerful economy based on trade and manufacturing in addition to agriculture. He enjoyed the fine food and intelligent people he found in cities such as Philadelphia.

Most significantly, Washington came to doubt the culture he had come from. He grew to hate slavery. He distrusted Jefferson's ideal of an agrarian society because he recognized that such a society relied on slaves. He hoped for slavery to end and saw that it would ultimately divide the North and South. He even admitted in private that if the North and South should separate, he would go to the North.

With his belief in an American future involving a strong national government, Washington was becoming a Federalist. He resisted the name and tried to stay distant from the two developing political parties. In reality, though, he was on the side of the Federalists and always had been. Though he ultimately failed to stay "above politics" as he thought the president should, he succeeded in making the presidency a legitimate office. By the time he left office he had many enemies, but no one called for the office of president to be changed or abandoned. This fact is remarkable given how many Americans feared a strong leader before Washington took office.

Though he angered many people as president for supporting Hamilton's pro-capital and pro-British policies, Washington's reputation remained strong. After his death this reputation grew to mythic proportions. Americans soon made it a custom to place portraits of Washington in their homes and speak of him reverently, as though he were a god. Myths (like the one about the cherry tree, which of course never happened) sprang up everywhere. The press would routinely compare political leaders to Washington, always unfavorably. He was the gold standard of heroism. He has become such a hero, in fact, that today many Americans find it difficult to relate to Washington. He seems huge but strangely faceless, much like the monument that honors him in Washington, D.C. This is appropriate in a way. Washington wouldn't necessarily have wanted us to know his as a man, but rather as a leader.

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