The Final Struggle Between George Washington and the Grim King:

Washington’s Attitude Toward Death and Afterlife


Peter R. Henriques*


Copyrighted and not to be reproduced without written permission of the author.




The final year of the 18th century witnessed the death of Virginia’s two most popular and beloved heroes - Patrick Henry and George Washington. Patrick Henry, suffering from severe intestinal blockage, met his death in June with the courage of a convinced Christian. More than a decade earlier he had written his sister on the death of her husband, “This is one of those trying scenes, in which the Christian is eminently superior to all others and finds a refuge which no misfortune can take away.”<su1> Facing his own imminent demise, Henry used his confidence in boldly facing death as a means of testifying to his skeptical physician about the truth of the Christian religion. He would go to a place where “sorrows never enter.”<su2> His wife recounted his death scene in a letter to their daughter, “He met death with firmness and in full confidence that through the merits of a bleeding saviour that his sins would be pardoned.”<su3>


Six months later George Washington died an even more painful death and faced his ordeal with a courage every bit equal to that demonstrated by Patrick Henry. Yet, unlike Henry, Washington did not draw his courage from a Christian concept of redemption and the hope of eternal bliss through the sacrifice of Christ. A thorough examination of Washington’s religious views, which have been hotly debated,<su4> is beyond the scope of this paper, but a careful examination of the way he faced death and what he wrote others at times of their great personal grief sheds light on Washington’s attitude toward death and an afterlife and gives insight into his character.


George Washington’s brief fatal illness in December of 1799 came suddenly and with little warning but it was not unexpected. While it would be incorrect to aver that Washington was “haunted by premonitions of death,”<5> there is no question that it was often on his mind, especially in the last years of his life and when he was not involved in important activities. He was acutely aware that he was from a short-lived family,<su6> that he was approaching the biblical life span of three score and ten,<7> that he was worn out from a life-time of service, that his remaining days “could not be many,”<su8> and that “his glass was almost run.”<su9> A constant image in his later correspondence is that of gently drifting down the stream of life.<su10> When his sole surviving brother, Charles, died earlier in 1799 Washington wrote, “I was the first, and am now the last, of my father’s children by the second marriage who remain. When I shall be called upon to follow them, is known only to the giver of life. When the summons comes I shall endeavour to obey it with good grace.”<su11>


It was extremely important to Washington to meet death with “good grace”. For much of Washington’s adult life, he was in one sense or another playing a role - the classical republican general, the patriot king, the father of his country. The desire for the approbation of the people - properly earned through disinterested service for the common good - lay very close to the core of Washington’s being. He hoped that in facing death he would do nothing to sully the reputation he had spent a lifetime building.<su12>


Certainly, Washington’s courage in the face of possible death, stoical in nature from whatever source it was drawn, was one of the trademarks of his life. At the age of seventeen, young Washington owned an outline in English of the principal <mdit>Dialogues of Seneca the Younger<med>. One of the chapter heads was entitled, “The Contempt of Death makes all the Miseries of Life Easy to Us”.<su13> Seneca also wrote, “He is the brave man…that can look death in the face without trouble or surprise”.<su14> In classical stoicism, the true stoic may fall victim to circumstance beyond his control, suffer and perhaps die, but his superior control over his passions calls forth admiration and leads to a reaffirmation of the dignity of man.


Washington displayed a stoic’s contempt for death which awed his contemporaries. His response to his baptism by fire which triggered the start of the French and Indian War in 1754 was, “I heard the bullets whistle and believe me, there is something charming in the sound.” Published in England, it reportedly drew a reaction even from King George II.<su15> During the French and Indian War, Washington ignored the threats from angry frontiersmen “to blow out my brains”,<su16> put his life at extreme risk by going between his soldiers and knocking up their guns with his sword after they accidentally opened fire on each other,<su17> and offered to “die by inches” a horrible death if it would stop the suffering on the frontier he was sworn to protect.<su18> He wrote truthfully, if with a touch of arrogance, “I [have]… the resolution to Face what any Man durst.”<su19>


His legendary courage as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army might have worried his aides but it inspired his men. His actions at Princeton and Monmouth, and his response to the falling shells at Yorktown, demonstrated a character seemingly immune from normal fear in the presence of death.<su20> So great was his courage that even his harshest critics never brought it into question.<su21> So extreme was it that one biographer wrote, “There is a streak of something close to a mad nature in a man whose instinctive reaction to near death is sheer exhilaration, who finds the whine of bullets ‘charming’, and to whom the swirl of violence is a fine tonic that calms his nerves remarkably and serves to clear his head.”<su22>


Washington’s courage would be sorely tested one last time in his final struggle with what Washington once referred to as the “grim King”.<su23> Thanks primarily to the invaluable accounts left by Washington’s devoted personal secretary, friend, and avid admirer, Tobias Lear, and augmented by the letter from his physicians, Dr. James Craik and Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick within days of his death, we have a good general sense of what happened during Washington’s final illness even though some details remain in dispute.<su24> It is a story which has been told many times though the telling has often concentrated on the calmness with which Washington faced his demise and in so doing has downplayed the horrific nature of Washington’s last day on earth.


Death was not likely to have been on Washington’s mind as he went out to check on his farms during the day of Thursday, December 12, 1799. His recent health had never been better,<su25> he was making various plans for the future, and had even signed a jocular pact not to die until the dawn of the new century.<su26> Washington remained outside for approximately five hours despite the fact that “the weather was very disagreeable, a constant fall of rain, snow and hail with a high wind.”<su27>


Apparently, at some time during his travels, Washington was stricken with the virulent infection which would soon claim his life. His remarkably hardy constitution in this case may have actually worked to his detriment. The day after his death, Thomas Law wrote, “Alas! He relied upon it too much and exposed himself without common caution to the heat in summer and cold in winter.”<su28> Despite getting soaked from the snow and rain, Washington did not change clothes before dinner. Already beginning to show signs of a cold and a sore throat Friday morning, and despite continued bad weather, he nevertheless went out briefly in the afternoon to mark some trees he wanted to have cut down. By evening he was very hoarse but still in good spirits. He insisted on reading sections of the paper out loud to his wife, Martha, and secretary, Tobias Lear. Rejecting advice to take medication, he said of his illness, “let it go as it came.”<su29> In retrospect these actions aggravated and exacerbated his illness.


Over the years there has been considerable debate on the nature of Washington’s final illness. The latest and most convincing medical studies indicate that George Washington died from acute epiglottitis caused by a virulent bacteria, possibly Hemophilus influenza type b.<su30> The epiglottis is a cartilaginous structure located at the base of the tongue and at the entrance to the larynx [voice box]. It is at the very entrance to the airway which goes through the larynx to the lungs. If it swells up, it can block the airway and in extreme cases, in which the epiglottis is enlarged to ten times its normal size, a ball-valve mechanism develops when trying to draw in sufficient air. Washington’s symptoms exhibited during his final illness - rapid onset, a very sore throat, difficulty in swallowing, difficulty in speaking, increased airway obstruction, especially when leaning backward, a desire to assume a sitting position in spite of weakness, persistent restlessness, and finally an apparent improvement shortly before death - dovetail exactly with acute epiglottitis.<su31>


By the early hours of Saturday morning, the 14th, the disease had progressed so rapidly that Washington was very uncomfortable and had difficulty breathing. Basically, during the rest of the day - nearly twenty hours - George Washington slowly and painfully choked to death. In Lear’s words, “He suffered extremely.” “His distress, through the day, was extreme.” “He appeared in great pain and distress from the difficulty in breathing and frequently changed his posture in bed" and tried to sit up.<su32> [Sitting up and leaning forward minimizes the ball valve effect from the enlarged epiglottis.] Sadly, the pain of constantly struggling for breath was significantly aggravated by the medical treatment given him.


Dr. James Craik, Washington’s long-time personal physician and dear friend, arriving later on the morning of the 14th, immediately recognized the gravity of the situation and urged that another physician, Dr. Elisha Cullen Dick, be called in as a consultant. Martha Washington had earlier sent word to Dr. Gustavus Brown of Port Tobacco about the General’s illness. Dick arrived around three p.m. and Brown shortly after. While Washington received excellent care from the three attending physicians according to the accepted medical practice of the time, much of their treatment was in fact detrimental.<su33>


During the course of less than twelve hours, George Washington was bled four different times, losing approximately five pints of blood!<su34> [Several accounts put the figure even higher.] The first bleeding was ordered by the General himself who was a firm believer in the efficacy of the procedure. Of course, the theory behind bleeding was to remove the diseased matter from the body. In fact, such excessive blood-letting severely weakened Washington. Besides weakening him, the aggressive blood-letting compromised his circulation. In acute epiglottitis, it is not difficult to expel air but it is hard to inhale it and receive sufficient oxygen. As a result the patient suffers from hypoxemia, deficient oxygenation of the blood. The significant loss of blood, at least one half of his total supply, further reduced his oxygen supply since the hemoglobin in the blood carries oxygen. The use of purgatives, by significantly reducing his body fluids, compounded the situation by further compromising circulation.<su35>


Not only did the purgatives compromise circulation, they inflicted significant additional suffering. Two moderate doses of calomel [a white tasteless medicine used as a purgative] were given, and an injection was administered. Later, ten more grains of calomel were given, followed by repeated doses of emetic tartar totaling five or six grains. The result was a “copious discharge of the bowels.”<su36> How much discomfort this would inflict upon a man struggling for each breath is easier to imagine than to describe. Blistering added to the discomfort but did nothing to alleviate the situation. It is not surprising that Washington, who appeared to realize early on in the day that the disease would prove fatal, struggled valiantly to make his physicians aware that while he appreciated their efforts, he desired them to stop their ministrations. “Let me go off quietly.”


Throughout the entire ordeal the General displayed remarkable fortitude and patience - “not a complaint escaped him.”<su37> Clearly, the conditions surrounding his fatal illness were horrific, and they were beyond Washington’s control to change. Somehow, Washington kept his dignity despite the circumstances which were anything but dignified.<su38>


While his courage, which was so much a part of his persona, shone brightly, other aspects of his character were highlighted during the ordeal as well. Lear wrote the following day, “he died as he lived.”<su39> While space prohibits a thorough examination of this aspect of the story, a few points should be noted. In the midst of his own personal agony, Washington’s concern for others stands out. He refused to allow Martha to seek help in the middle of the night for fear she would take cold. He calmed the fears of the overseer, George Rawlins, who took the first blood. He apologized to Tobias Lear who was helping move him to different positions in the General’s endless quest for oxygen by worrying that the effort would fatigue Lear! He thanked his physicians for their heroic efforts. He urged his personal body servant, Christopher Scheels, who had been standing by the bed throughout the day, to sit down. These actions speak volumes about Washington’s character.<su40>


The authors of the major biography of Washington emphasized another aspect of his character. “The same self-discipline served Washington as patient that had served him as a planter, as Commander-in chief, as President. Duty…was his governing principle…. Today, this 14th of December 1799, he responded as if clearly it was his duty not to deny the doctors and others their valiant efforts to restore him, unavailing though he believed them to be.”<su41>


George Washington was a man who liked to be in control, and, as death approached, he did what he could to ensure that what was important to him would be carried out after he was gone. He had Martha bring him two wills and made sure the old one was burned. His final will was a massive document expressing his wishes on any number of things. One of his very last requests, when speaking was done only with great pain and effort, involved his public and personal papers. As W.W. Abbot has demonstrated., these were of the utmost importance to him and to his perceived place in history.<su42> His very last request to Lear was for Lear to be sure not to have him buried until he had been dead for at least two days.<su43> The idea of being buried alive was a more realistic concern then than it would be today and apparently this thought, to a man always desiring control, was a very disquieting one. For whatever reason, it was clearly important to Washington because he wanted to make absolutely sure Lear understood him.


One aspect of acute epiglottitis is that as the lack of oxygen becomes extreme, a euphoric state develops which may be interpreted as improvement. Lear noted, “About ten minutes before he expired…his breathing became easier. He lay quietly; he withdrew his hand from mine and felt his own pulse.” Then his countenance changed, his hand fell and sometime late in the evening of December 14th George Washington’s life on earth was over.<su44>


Did Washington see this physical death as the end of his life? How did Washington view death? Is death the entry way to a better world? How should one face death - one’s own and those of friends and loved ones? Washington’s answers to these questions may help us better understand his philosophy and what motivated his actions. Efforts to understand George Washington’s attitude towards death and an afterlife are complicated by the fact that he was reticent to discuss such issues and, as far as the record shows, never formulated a comprehensive view about them. The confusion is compounded because almost from the very moment of his death apologists sought to make Washington’s position conform to their own. Despite these obstacles, a careful reading of Washington’s correspondence and attention to what he said – and, equally important, to what he did not say - can help clarify these issues.


During his sixty-seven years of life, George Washington often had to face the death of relatives and friends close to him. While there is no extant material for his reaction to the deaths of some people important to him such as his father, Augustine, who died when Washington was only eleven, or his half-brother, Lawrence, who died nine years later, there still is a significant corpus of material on this subject. Relevant correspondence includes deaths of the following family and friends: Mary Ball Washington [mother], Patsy Custis [step-daughter]; Jackie Custis[step-son]; John Augustine Washington [brother]; Charles [brother]; Betty [sister]; George Augustine Washington [nephew]; Fanny Bassett Washington Lear [niece]; and friends such as Burwell Bassett’s daughter and Bassett himself; General Nathaniel Greene; Col. Tench Tilghman; Patrick Henry; Henry Lee’s wife and daughter; Benjamin Lincoln’s son; Henry Knox’s son; William Pearce’s daughter; and Archibald Cary’s wife.<su45>


Daniel Blake Smith has written, “A controlled style of bereavement - submission to God’s authority with no affectation of overflowing grief” - remained the ideal way to confront family death throughout the eighteenth century.<su46> Kathleen Brown notes, “Elite men interpreted control over such emotions as …sadness…as the triumph of reason over passion.”<su47> George Washington tried - with considerable but not total success - to live up to those ideals.<su48>


George Washington’s views on the proper way to face death and loss are remarkably consistent throughout his adult life and include several aspects.

At the center of his thought is the concept of God or Providence [Washington uses a remarkable number of different names for this force such as “the supreme disposer of all events”, "Grand Architect”, “the Almighty ruler of the universe”, the “great governor of the Universe”, and dozens of others]. This supernatural force is the giver of life and is a force which actively intervenes in human life. Washington has often been described as a deist, but if he was, he best fits into the category of what Edwin Gaustad has called a “warm deist”.<su49> Deism in the 18th century denied the interference of the Creator in the laws of the Universe, but the image of the great ‘watch maker’ who creates the world but does not intervene in it does not comport with Washington’s ideas. By contrast, a “warm deist” sees Providence regularly shaping and molding history. In writing to people in times of personal bereavement, Washington consistently stresses three aspects about this supernatural force. It is wise, it is inscrutable, and it is irresistible.<su50> The emphasis is often on the inscrutable nature of Providence. Its actions can’t be understood from man’s perspective. Man “can only form conjectures agreeable to the small extent of our knowledge and ignorant of the comprehensive schemes intended”.<su51> It is best to trust Providence “without perplexing ourselves to seek for that which is beyond human ken.”<su52>


It is often impossible for man to understand why tragedy occurs, and Washington usually views death in this fashion. Washington describes death with emotive words such as a “stroke”, “a severe stroke”, a “blow”, a “trial”, a “test”, “an afflictive trial”, a “debt” we must all pay.<su53> And while we may not understand why it occurs, we cannot prevent it from happening. As a young man he wrote to Sally Cary Fairfax, “there is a Destiny, which has Sovereign control of our Actions - not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature.”<su54> He never changed his mind.


Ultimately, Washington fell back on the position that “He that gave has a right to take away.”<su55> Writing to his dying nephew, George Augustine Washington, he declared, “The will of Heaven is not to be controverted or scrutinized by the children of this world. It therefore becomes the Creatures of it to submit with patience and resignation to the will of the Creator whether it be to prolong, or to shorten the number of our days. To bless them with health, or afflict them with pain.”<su56> Over and over again, Washington urged those in grief to seek the “comforts of religion and philosophy” but primarily to submit with resignation.<su57> Washington writes almost with pride to Bryan Fairfax on how he responded to his nephew’s death, “It is a loss I sincerely regret, but as it is the will of Heaven, whose decrees are always wise and just, I submit to it without a murmur.”<su58>


Yet even as Washington sets this up as the ideal response, he realizes the impossibility of actually achieving it in cases of great loss and qualifies his call for resignation and acceptance with the proviso, “as far as feelings of humanity will allow.”<su59> Whatever the ideal, he is acutely aware that humans must grieve for their loved ones. “It is the nature of humanity to mourn for the loss of our friends; and the more we loved them, the more poignant is our grief.”<su60> Writing to his good friend, Henry Knox, on the loss of his son, Washington recognized that “parental feelings are too much alive in the moment of these misfortunes to admit the consolations of religion or philosophy.”<su61> He expressed similar sentiments to his nephew, George Lewis, “Time alone can ameliorate, and soften the pangs we experience at parting.”<su62>


George Washington certainly grieved intensely for the loss of people close to him although he did so privately. Adopting the view that controlling sadness was a sign of the triumph of reason over passion and that it was generally unmanly to weep, Washington shunned public displays of grief. Reflecting the mores of the time, Jackie Custis apologized to his step-father for “acting like a woman” upon hearing of his sister’s death and giving himself “up entirely to melancholy for several days.”<su63> When Jackie himself died eight years later following the American victory at Yorktown, an associate noted that General Washington was “uncommonly affected”, and he stopped his diary in mid-sentence.<su64> General Greene’s death was so regretted by Washington that “I can scarce persuade myself to touch upon it.”<su65>


The absence of specific references to grieving for his father or half-brother, Lawrence, does not mean Washington did not do so. “Death of near relatives always produces awful and affecting emotions.”<su66> “The death of a parent is…awful and affecting.”<su67> “Separation from our nearest relatives is a heart rending circumstance.”<su68> A couple of extant letters further help us understand why we have so few examples of an openly grieving Washington. Writing to Bushrod Washington, son of his favorite brother, John Augustine, who had just died, Washington declared, “to attempt an expression of my sorrow on this occasion would be as feebly described, as it would be unavailing when related.”<su69> Later, writing Fanny Bassett Washington on the death of her husband and his nephew, Washington asserted, “To express this sorrow with the force I feel it, would answer no other purpose than to revive, in your breast, that poignancy of anguish, which, by this time, I hope is abated.”<su70> Time and time again, Washington writes that he “feels most sensibly” the loss of a loved one or friend that death had “snatched from us.”<su71>


Did Washington expect to be reunited with those who were snatched from him by death? While the evidence is admittedly fragmentary and inconsistent, a careful reading of what Washington said - and did not say - indicates that Washington was skeptical about a reunion with loved ones in another life.


The most striking aspect of Washington’s view of life after death centers on what he does not say. Not once in all of his authentic, extant correspondence does he explicitly indicate his belief in the reunion of loved ones in Heaven. Certainly the greatest comfort of religion in general and of Christianity in particular is this hope. Washington may urge those in grief to find consolation in religion, but in all the letters of condolence he writes he never gives his recipients the comfort of his assurance that he believes they will meet again with their loved ones. In contrast, William Fairfax, following the death of his wife and Lawrence Washington’s baby in 1747, wrote to Lawrence, “As it has been the Will of God lately to take to his mercy the spirits of my late wife and your child we submit to his Divine pleasure.”<su72> When George Mason’s daughter lost a child in 1785, Mason attempted to console her with the words, “Your dear baby has died innocent and blameless, and has been called away by an all wise and merciful Creator, most probably from a life of misery and misfortune, and most certainly to one of happiness and bliss.”<su73> Thomas Jefferson comforted John Adams following the death of his beloved Abigail with the thought that Adams should look forward to that “ecstatic meeting with friends we have loved and lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.”<su74> Patrick Henry encouraged his sister with the hope “that we shall meet again in Heaven.”<su75> Washington will not use such language. As Paul Boller writes in another context, there is a “rugged honesty” in Washington’s refusal to assume religious postures that he did not feel privately.<su76>


Neither will Washington comfort himself with such a vision. Indeed, to the degree that he writes about death, the emphasis is on separation. After his brother Jack’s death, he writes, “I have made an eternal farewell to a much loved Brother who was the intimate companion of my youth and the most affectionate friend of my ripened age.”<su77> Shortly before his mother died, Washington visited her in Fredericksburg. “I took a final leave of my Mother, never expecting to see her more.”<su78> Parting from his beloved friend, Lafayette, following the end of the war, Washington pined, “I often asked myself, as our Carriages distended, whether that was the last sight, I ever should have of you? And tho’ I wished to say no - my fears answered yes.”<su79> These assertions are not moderated with words like “in this world” or the like.


While no one can know what Washington was thinking on this subject on December 14th, the complete lack of religious context is striking. In Washington’s final hours, as faithfully recounted by Lear, there is no reference to any religious words or prayers, no request for forgiveness, no fear of divine judgment, no call for a minister although ample time existed to call one if desired, no deathbed farewell, no promise or hope of meeting again in Heaven.<su80> It is significant that Tobias Lear ends his personal account with the explicit hope that he will meet Washington in Heaven, but his sense of fidelity to a true record keeps him from putting such words in Washington’s mouth. [Of course, others were not so scrupulous and accounts quickly emerged of Washington dying a “Christian” death.]<su81> Martha Washington, a devout Christian, soon writes how she hopes to meet her husband in Heaven.<su82> Perhaps Washington did not take special leave of his wife because as Thomas Law wrote, “he had frequently disapproved of the afflicting farewells which aggravated sorrows on those melancholy occasions”,<su83> but words of hope for a future reunion - if honestly voiced - would surely have given comfort to those left behind.


The argument that George and Martha Washington viewed the concept of an afterlife differently is further supported by examining the letters written to each by Jackie Custis on learning of the sudden death of his sister, Patsy, from seizures, in 1773. In his letter to his mother, Jackie urged her to “remember you are a Christian.” Patsy’s “case is more to be envied than pitied, for if we mortals can distinguish between those who are deserving of grace & those who are not, I am confident she enjoys that Bliss prepar’d only for the good & virtuous, let these considerations, My dear Mother have their due weight with you and comfort yourself with reflecting that she now enjoys in substance what we in this world enjoy in imagination & that there is no real Happiness on this side of the grave.”<su84> His letter to his step-father is completely void of such sentiments as if they would not have given solace to Washington.<su85>


While Washington’s view of the afterlife does not seem to be Christian, the record is clear that he did believe in some type of life after death although it may be tempting to read more into his off-handed comments than might be merited. For example, Washington at least twice makes reference to going “to the world of spirits.”<su86> He writes Lafayette about searching for “Elysium.”<su87> [Elysium or the Elysian fields refers to the happy otherworld for heroes favored by the gods.] When Patsy dies of epilepsy, he writes she has gone “to a happier place.”<su88> Following his Mother’s death, he reflects the hope that she is in a “happier place.”<su89> Washington can hope that God blesses a group of ministers “here and hereafter.”<su90> He makes reference to nurturing the plant of friendship “before they are transplanted to a happier clime.”<su91> In a draft written by Timothy Pickering to two Philadelphia churches, Washington looks forward to retirement “which can only be exceeded by the hope of future happiness.”<su92> While he is dying, he declares several times, “I am going… I die hard but am not afraid to go.” According to Lear’s letter to his mother on Dec. 16th ,Washington told Lear, “I am just going to change my scene.” <su93> The image of “going” implies some kind of continuation of existing. It is apparent that Washington had difficulty accepting or conceiving of the idea of nothingness. He does not believe that a person will simply cease to exist upon his or her death.


While life goes on - in some fashion - the picture Washington paints of it is generally a gloomy one. “The world of spirits” may or may not be a happy place. When Washington speaks of Patsy going to a happier place, he specifically contrasts it with “the afflicted Path she hitherto has trod.”<su94> A relative had written Washington that his Mother was in fact in a happier place.<su95> Washington significantly adds his hope that this is true rather than simply agreeing with the statement. The passing reference to Elysium may well have been made tongue in cheek. While there are clear references to an afterlife and some of them are quite positive, Washington’s references to death and what follows afterwards are more often rather gloomy and pessimistic.


Death was “the grim King” whom Washington, not yet thirty and very near his “last gasp”, feared would master his “utmost efforts” and cause him to “sink in spite of a noble struggle.”<su96> Much later, to demonstrate how much he did not want to take on yet another new responsibility, Washington told Alexander Hamilton that he would leave his peaceful abode [Mount Vernon] with as much reluctance as he would go to the tomb of his ancestors.<su97> When people die, he speaks of them as “poor Greene” or “poor Laurens” or “poor Mr. Custis.” Referring to death, Washington wrote about his “approaching decay”, “hour of my dissolution”, of going “to the shades of darkness”, “to sleep with my fathers”, to “the shades below”, “to the tomb of my ancestors”, “to the dreary mansions of my fathers.” Death was “the country from whence no Traveller returns.”<su98> The overall image is not a bright one, certainly not a Christian one.


The Christian images of judgment, redemption through the sacrifice of Christ, and eternal life for the faithful find no resonance in any of Washington’s known writings. Indeed, in his personal correspondence he never refers to Jesus or the Christ or the Saviour at all. In a revealing letter to Lafayette to whom he writes with a frankness shared with few if any other correspondents, Washington writes about Christianity as if he were an outsider. “Being no bigot myself to any mode or worship, I am disposed to indulge professors of Christianity…that road to Heaven, which to them shall seem the most direct plainest easiest and least liable to exception.”<su99> Douglas Freeman wrote that at age twenty-seven, Washington found no rock of refuge in religion.<su100> Forty years later, he still had not found it.


Washington appears to be more interested in acquiring a different type of immortality, a secular immortality by achieving fame across the ages.<su101> In another interesting letter to Lafayette, Washington talks about the “bards”, those poets “who hold the keys of the gate by which Patriots, sages and heroes are admitted to immortality!” The ancient bards are called “both the priests and the door-keepers to the temple of fame.”<su102> David Humphreys understood the General’s desires when he wrote him in connection with the Houdon bust, “Indeed, my dear General, it must be pleasing to you amid the tranquil walks of private life to find that history, poetry, painting and sculpture will vie with each other in consigning your name to immortality.”<su103> One can sense Washington strongly shared the sentiments he expressed when he wrote to Colonel Tilghman’s father following the death of his son, “there is this consolation to be drawn, that while living, no man could be more esteemed - and since dead, none more lamented than Colo. Tilghman.”<su104>


To be revered in life, to be lamented in death, to be remembered with honor in history were concrete things that could give real consolation in a time of grief. Writing to Sally Cary Fairfax at age twenty-seven, Washington mused about the fall of a British officer and declared, “Who is there that does not rather Envy, then regret a Death that gives birth to honour and Glorious memory.”<su105> This glorious memory was something to envy and desire and strive to achieve.


For Washington, exactly what happens after death is beyond man’s ability either to know or to control. In the face of this fact, what can man do beyond trusting in the goodness of Providence? A hint of Washington’s view can be found in one of his favorite passages from his favorite play, Joseph Addison’s Cato: “It is beyond the power of mortals to command success. We’ll do more, Sempronius. We will deserve it.”<su106> On the death of a beloved niece, Washington rather paradoxically wrote, “She is now no more! But she must be happy, because her virtue has a claim to it.”<su107>


Not only personal courage allowed Washington to face his final struggle with the Grim King with perfect resignation and equanimity. It was the conviction that he had lived his life with honor and that he had “always walked on a straight line, and endeavoured as far as human frailties, and perhaps strong passions, would enable him, to discharge the relative duties to his Maker and fellow men, without seeking any indirect or left-handed attempts to acquire popularity.”<su108> Thus armed with virtue, he would venture out prepared and unafraid to meet whatever the future might hold.


Whatever future tests might or might not lie ahead, George Washington met his final test on earth - as he had lived his life - with the type of grace and courage and character that affirms the dignity of man and commands our respect and admiration. If ever a man deserved the secular immortality he so avidly sought, that man was George Washington.


* Peter R Henriques is an associate professor of history at George Mason University. He would like to thank Jim Elson, Frank Grizzard, Marlene Henriques, Barbara McMillan, Judy Pierce, Rosemarie Zagarri, and the two anonymous reviewers from <mdit>VMHB<med> for their help in completing this article.










Patrick Henry to Anne Christian, 15 May 1786, in William Wirt Henry, <mdit>Patrick Henry: Life, Correspondence & Speeches, 3 vols.<med> (New York, 1969, reprint of 1891 edition), II., p. 286.


2 Patrick Henry to Bartholemew Dandridge, 21 Jan. 1785, in ibid., p. 252.


Dorothea Dandridge Henry to Elizabeth Aylett, no date but probably written from Red Hill shortly after Patrick Henry’s death. Owned by the Patrick Henry Memorial Association. James Elson’s article, “The Death of Patrick Henry”, summarizes these events. [Patrick Henry Essay No. 2-98 published by the Patrick Henry Memorial Association, Brookneal, Virginia 24528.]


Because of Washington’s centrality to American history, people with diametrically opposed views on religion have claimed Washington as one of their own. Within the Christian right, Washington is sometimes portrayed as a born-again fundamentalist. This is accomplished by accepting as authentic a spurious collection of “Washington Prayers” supposedly copied by him as a young man and then using those sentiments to express Washington’s mature faith. An excellent example of this effort is the sermon by the prominent television evangelist, Rev. D. James Kennedy, “The Faith of Washington”. Copy in file, “George Washington and Religion”, Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association of the Union, Mount Vernon, Va. (hereafter cited as ViMtvL). Tim LaHaye, after declaring that Washington had accepted Jesus as his Lord and Saviour, ends his treatment of Washington in his book, <mdit>Faith of the Founding Fathers<med> (Brentwood, Tenn., 1987), with the assertion, “An objective reading of these beautiful prayers verifies that were George Washington living today, he would freely identify with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence on our nation.” p. 113. On the other hand, and with no more validity, freethinkers argue that Washington should rightly be viewed as one of them. Good examples of this are Franklin Steiner, <mdit>The Religious Beliefs of our Presidents<med> (Amherst, N.Y, 1995), and John E. Remsburg, <mdit>Six historic Americans: Paine, Jefferson, Washington, Franklin, Lincoln, Grant, The Fathers and Saviors of our Republic, Freethinkers<med> (New York, 1906). The views of both these authors can be found on the web by searching with the keywords, “George Washington, Freethinker”. Still the best overview of the subject is Paul Boller’s <mdit>George Washington and Religion<med>, (Dallas, 1963). Mary Thompson of the Mount Vernon Ladies Association has compiled a large amount of information on the subject in her paper, “George Washington and Religion”, copy in possession of the author and in briefer form at ViMtvL. A recent study which emphasizes Washington’s Christian views is North Callahan, <mdit>Thanks, Mr. President: The Trail-Blazing Second Term of George Washington<med>, (New York and London, 1991), pp. 65-72. Richard Brookhiser stresses Washington’s desire to “borrow what is useful in Christianity for the United States.” <mdit>Founding Father: Rediscovering GWashington”<med> (New York, London, and Toronto, 1996), pp. 144-50. While not a communicant, it should be noted that Washington was a lifelong member of the Anglican/Episcopal Church and for a time a vestryman in the church. Still, as Dorothy Twohig notes, Washington’s “interest in religion always appears to have been perfunctory.” Dorothy Twohig, “The Making of George Washington”, in Warren Hofstra, editor, <mdit>George Washington and the Virginia Backcountry<med> (Madison, Wisconsin, 1998), p. 19. Washington’s “faith was as aloof as the man who harbored it.” Eugene S. Gausted, <mdit>Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation<med> (San Francisco, 1987), p. 77. Washington once wrote, “in religion my tenets are few and simple.” George Washington to Dr. James Anderson, 24 Dec. 1795, in John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799<med> (39 vols.; Washington, D.C., 1931-1944), XXXIV, 407. Any attempt to closely connect Washington to orthodox Christian thinking must take into account the total and complete lack of reference to Jesus [or Christ] in any of his private correspondence.


James Thomas Flexner, <mdit>George Washington: Anguish and

Farewell<med> (Boston, 1969) p. 341. Flexner implies this was a characteristic of Washington throughout his adult life. <mdit>Washington: The Indispensable Man<med> (Boston and Toronto, 1974), p. 47.


George Washington to Lafayette, 8 Dec. 1784, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXVIII, 7.


Douglass Southall Freeman, John Carroll, Mary Ashworth, <mdit>George Washington : A Biography<med> (7 vols.; New York, 1948-57), VII, 582.


Among many references, Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXVI, 41; 263.


Quoted in Willard Sterne Randall, <mdit>George Washington: A Life<med> (New York, 1997), p. 499.


Among many examples, Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIX, 211; XXIX, 170;

XXVII, 318; XXVII, 371.


George Washington to Burgess Ball, 22 Sept. 1799, in ibid.,

XXXVII, 372.


The idea of Washington playing a role is well developed in Paul Longmore, <mdit>The Invention of George Washington<med>

(Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London, 1988), especially p.52 and pp. 202-211. See also Gordon S. Wood, <mdit>The Radicalism of the American Revolution<med> (New York, 1991), pp. 205-10.


Samuel Eliot Morison, “The Young Man Washington”, in James Morton Smith, editor, <mdit>George Washington: A Profile<med> (New York, 1969), p. 46. Morison credits the Fairfax family as the key influence, declaring they were in the tradition of 18th century Whig gentry who conformed outwardly to Christianity but derived their real inspiration from the Stoic philosophers. While this may be true, it is worth noting that William Fairfax once considered becoming an Anglican clergyman and that his son, Bryan, did become one.


Roger L’Estrange, ed., <mdit>Seneca’s Morals: By Way of Abstract<med> (New York, ca. 1930 reprint of earlier edition), p. 10.


15. George Washington to John Augustine Washington, 31 May 1754, in W.W. Abbot et al, eds., <mdit >The Papers of George Washington: Colonial Series, 10 vols.<med> ( Charlottesville, 1983-1995), 1, 118; The King commented that Washington would not say so if he had heard many, n. 1, 119.


16. George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 11 Oct. 1755, in ibid., II, 102.


17. Rosemary Zagarri, ed., <mdit>David Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington” with George Washington’s “Remarks”<med> (Athens and London, 1991), p. 22.


18. George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 22 April 1756, in Abbot et al, <mdit>Papers of Washington<med>, Colonial Series, III, 33.


19. George Washington to Robert Dinwiddie, 29 May 1754 in ibid., 1, 107.


The description of Washington - “cool like a Bishop at his prayers”- by Roger Atkinson in 1774 seems particularly appropriate for Washington’s actions under fire. Quoted in Freeman, <mdit>Washington<med>, III, 370n.


Ibid., V, 489.


22. Noemie Emery, <mdit>Washington: A Biography<med> (New York, 1976), p. 378. Washington was aware of and impressed by the idea of “heroic death.” Several paintings which hung in Mount Vernon’s two dining rooms dealt with this theme: the death of Montgomery by Trumbull, Bunker Hill, the death of General Wolfe, and the death of the Earl of Chatham. See Garry Wills, <mdit>Cincinnatus: George Washington & the Enlightenment<med>, (New York, 1984), pp. 174-75. I wish to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for bringing this point to my attention.


George Washington to Richard Washington 20 Oct. 1761, in Abbot et al, <mdit>Papers of Washington<med>, Colonial Series, VII, 80. While Washington only used this phrase once, I thought it fit with his later reference to death “snatching” people from us and decided to use it in the title of the article. The “Grim King” was apparently a popular ballad. For example in The Beggar’s Opera, 1728, Air VIII is entitled “Grim King of the Ghosts”.


While Tobias Lear became a Jeffersonian and at one point got into financial trouble with Washington, their relationship was very close and Lear looked upon Washington as a sort of idyllic father figure. After being his private secretary for a few years, Lear assessed Washington in these words. “General Washington is, I believe, almost the only man of an exalted character who does not lose some part of his respectability by an intimate acquaintance. I have lived with him near two years,…and I declare I have never found a single thing which could lessen my respect for him.” Tobias Lear to William Prescott, 4 March, 1788, quoted in John Knowlton, “Tobias Lear and George Washington: In Support of Greatness”, MA Thesis, University of Maine, 1967, p.14, copy at ViMtvL. A rather unsympathetic account of Lear may be found in Ray Brighton, <mdit>The Checkered Career of Tobias Lear<med> (Portsmouth, N.H., 1985). Washington demonstrated his abiding affection for Lear by confirming in his final will a lifetime lease of 360 acres he had given to Lear at the time of Lear’s marriage to Fanny Bassett Washington. Lear left two accounts, a “journal” entry on December 15th and a longer “diary” account later in the month. This is discussed in the forthcoming final volume of the Retirement Series of the George Washington Papers. It is worth noting that Dr. James Craik later endorsed the larger “diary” account as accurate “as far as I can recollect.” While there are slight differences and discrepancies between the two versions, I believe the second, larger version was simply an effort to expand and augment the one given very shortly after Washington’s death so as to include more information while it was fresh in Lear’s memory. How much credence to give Lear’s account is of course a major consideration. Clearly, he sanitizes Washington’s death and downplays the horrific aspects of it. Jack Warren sees Lear’s account as a death narrative attempting to uphold the ideal of republican sacrifice. The sacrifice and death of revolutionary heroes - Warren, Montgomery, and Mercer, perhaps the most celebrated - ensured their immortality. While Washington was doomed to die in bed and was denied a hero’s death on the battlefield, Lear provided for him a hero’s death. [Jack Warren to author, 1 Feb. 1999, copy in possession of author.] While admitting Lear had several purposes in writing his accounts, I believe they have the ring of truth about them even if they may be incomplete and perhaps incorrect in some details. There is a tremendous vividness to a deathbed scene such as Lear witnessed. He wrote about it immediately, including a private letter to his mother which he told her not to make public. His account was supported by Dr. Craik. Washington had demonstrated remarkable courage throughout his life, was very much aware of the concept of heroic death, knew this was his final act and would have done everything he could, consistent with human reaction to pain and difficulty breathing, to end his life in a praiseworthy way. It would be in keeping with Seneca’s description of a Stoic’s death as a man “who, if his body were to be broken upon the wheel or melted lead poured down his throat, would be less concerned for the pain itself than for the dignity of bearing it.” L’Estrange, ed., <mdit>Seneca’s Morals<med>, p. 10. It does not seem implausible to me that a man who demonstrated remarkable courage in life could demonstrate that same quality facing a difficult and painful death. Lear’s original “Journal” account is at the Clement’s Library at the University of Michigan. His original “Diary” account is owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.


25. Tobias Lear to Mary Stillson Lear, 16 Dec. 1799. Copy in information file on Washington’s death, ViMtvL.


Martha Washington to Eliza Powell, 18 Dec. 1797, in Joseph E. Fields, <mdit>Worthy Partner: The Papers of Martha Washington<med> (Westport, Conn., 1994) p. 310.


Tobias Lear to Mary Stillson Lear, 16 Dec. 1799, ViMtvL.


28. Thomas Law to his brother, December 15, 1799. George

Washington Papers, University of Virginia. Copy in file on death of

Washington. This failure to take reasonable precautions about his health is reflected in the comment by a figure in a new historical novel about Washington. “He didn’t know enough to come in out of the rain.” William Martin, <mdit>Citizen Washington: A Novel<med> (New York, 1999), p. 3.


29. Tobias Lear Journal, Copy in ViMtvL.


White McKenzie Wallenborn, MD, “George Washington’s Terminal Illness”, George Washington Papers, University of Virginia. In file on

death of Washington.


31. Heinz H. E. Scheidemandel, MD, “Did George Washington Die of Quinsy?”, <mdit>Arch Otolaryngol<med>, vol. 102, September, 1976. Copy in information file on Washington’s death, ViMtvL, which contains various accounts of how Washington died. The traditional view is “quinsy”, but Dr. Scheidemandel argues that in the short space of roughly twenty-one hours a peritonsillar abscess would not have produced total airway obstruction. Furthermore, there is no indication of swelling caused by an abscess. And while Washington had trouble speaking, he was not hoarse from a raspy throat. The symptoms simply fit together better for a diagnosis of acute epiglottitis rather than quinsy.



32. Lear uses such phrases in his letters to Lawrence Lewis, George Washington Parke Custis on December 15th and to his mother on December 16th, ViMtvL.


Paul Leicester Ford in his book, <mdit>The True George Washington<med> (Philadelphia, 1897), claims “there can be little doubt that the treatment of his last illness by the Doctors was little less than murder.” p. 58. Empahsis added. Certainly such a charge is unfair given the state of medical knowledge at the time.


Several accounts put the figure higher although it is difficult to accurately estimate the amount of blood actually drawn. For example, J. Worth Estes computes the amount to 96 ounces. “Treating America’s First Superhero”, <mdit>Medical Heritage<med>, Jan./Feb., 1985, p. 54. Copy in information file on Washington’s death, ViMtvL.


This point is made by both Wallenborn and Scheidemandel. It is unclear whether the interior of Washington’s throat was ever examined by his physicians. While most scholars say it was not, use of the word “inflammatory” describing Washington’s throat suggest that one or more of the physicians did examine it. I want to acknowledge the anonymous reviewer for bringing this point to my attention.


36. The letter from Drs. Craik and Dick was published in the Alexandria, Virginia <mdit>Times<med>, December 19, 1799. Copy in information file on Washington’s death, ViMtvL.


37. Tobias Lear to Mary Stillson Lear, 16 Dec. 1799, ViMtvL.


38. See note 24 for discussion of Washington’s courageous death.


39. Tobias Lear to William Augustine Washington, 15 Dec. 1799, in Worthington C. Ford, <mdit>The Writings of George Washington, 14 vols.,<med> (New York and London, 1893), XIV, p. 257.


40. Using many of these examples, Richard Brookhiser notes, “Washington died a death of civility.” Brookhiser, <mdit>Founding Father<med>, p. 198.


Freeman, Carroll and Ashworth, <mdit>GeorgeWashington<med>, VII, 624.


W. W. Abbot, “An Uncommon Awareness of Self: The Papers of George Washington”, <mdit>Prologue<med>, Spring, 1989, pp. 7-19.


43. In Lear’s later “diary” account he says “three days” which was more customary. Washington most likely said “two days” for that is what Lear wrote the day following his death and repeated to his mother on the 16th. Additionally, Thomas Law, writing on the day after GW’s death, uses “two days” as well, obviously repeating what Lear told him or using Lear’s account.


44. A fourth physician, Dr. William Thornton, arrived shortly after Washington’s demise and wanted to try and resuscitate him. “First thaw him in cold water, lay him in blankets, and warm him by friction, give him a trachea, inflate them with air and transfuse blood into him from a lamb.” Fortunately, this desecration on Washington’s remains was not done. In file on Washington’s death at the Washington Papers, UVA.


45. For Mary Ball Washington - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, IV, 32; for Patsy Custis - ibid., Colonial Series, IX, 243; for Jackie Custis - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIII, 340 & 356; for John Augustine Washington - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, IV, 509-10; for Charles - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXVII, 372; for Betty - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Retirement Series, I, 90; for George Augustine Washington - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXII, 315 & 354; for Fanny Bassett Washington Lear - ibid., XXXV, 5-6; for Burwell Bassett’s daughter and himself - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Colonial Series, IX, 219, Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXV, 26-7, and ibid., XXXII, 310; for General Nathaniel Greene - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, IV, 171 & V, 107; for Colonel Tench Tilghman - ibid., Confederation Series, IV, 96; for Patrick Henry - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXVII, 244; for Henry Lee’s wife and daughter - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, VI, 347; for Benjamin Lincoln’s son - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIX, 412-13; for Henry Knox’s son - ibid., XXXI, 360; for William Pearce’s daughter - ibid., XXXIII, 429; for Archibald Cary’s wife - ibid., XXIV, 346.


46. Daniel Blake Smith, <mdit>Inside the Great House<med> (Ithaca, 1980), p. 265. Emphasis added.


Kathleen M. Brown, <mdit>Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs<med> (Chapel Hill, 1996), p. 324.


48. Jan Lewis, <mdit>The Pursuit of Happiness: Family and Values in Jefferson’s Virginia<med>, (Cambridge, London and New York, 1983) devotes a chapter to contrasting mourning styles and attitudes towards death in Virginia between the 18th and 19th centuries. See pages 69-105. The difference might not be as pronounced as indicated. Thomas Jefferson’s extremely emotional reaction to his wife’s death may not have been that unusual.


Edwin Gaustad, <mdit>Sworn Upon the Altar of God<med> (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996), p. 143.


50. George Washington to Henry Knox, 8 Sept. 1791, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXI, 360.




52. George Washington to David Humphreys, 23 March 1793, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med> XXXII, 398.


53. “Afflictive trial”, ibid., XXXVI, 171; “debt”, ibid., XXXVII, 109; “severe stroke”, ibid., XXIII, 392; “shades below”, Fields, ed., <mdit>Worthy Partner<med>, p. 310. Washington’s reference to those who have died as “poor Laurens”, “poor Greene”, and “poor Mr. Custis” indicate his view of death as loss.


54. George Washington to Sally Cary Fairfax, 12 Sept. 1758, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Colonial Series, VI, 11. Although Washington was only twenty-six at the time of the letter, he said he had “long believed” in this view of providence.


55. George Washington to Archibald Cary, 15 June 1782, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIV, 346.


56. George Washington to George Augustine Washington, 27 Jan. 1793, in ibid., XXXII, 315-16.


57. This advice appears at least a dozen times in his writings with those individuals listed in note 39. It is a constant refrain in Washington’s correspondence and it was something that he practiced as well as preached. Twice, as president, he was gravely ill – once in 1789 and again in 1790. In the first instance, Washington queried his physician, Dr. Samuel Bard, “Do not flatter me with vain hopes; I am not afraid to die, and therefore can bear the worst!” Dr. Bard’s answer admitted the danger and the President replied, “Whether tonight or twenty years hence makes no difference.” In Ford, <mdit>True Washington<med>, p. 53. During his even closer brush with death in 1790, his aide and later biographer, David Humphreys, wrote that Washington spoke directly to him and said, “I know it is very doubtful whether I shall ever rise from this bed, & God knows it is perfectly indifferent to me whether I do or not.” In Zagarri, ed., <mdit> Humphreys’ “Life of General Washington”<med>, p. 57. Martha Washington commented on the anxiety caused by her husband’s illness and noted, “he seemed less concerned himself as to the event, than perhaps any other person in the United States.” Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, V, 397.


58. George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 6 March 1793, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXII, 376.


59. George Washington to Henry Lee, 27 Aug. 1790, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, VI,



George Washington to Tobias Lear, 30 March 1796, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXV, 5. Seneca himself recognized this need to grieve. “To lament the death of a friend is both natural and just; a sigh or a tear I would allow to his memory: but no profuse or obstinate sorrow….I would not advise insensibility and hardness; it were inhumanity, and not virtue, not to be moved at the separation of familiar friends and relations: now, in such cases, we cannot command ourselves, we cannot forbear weeping, and we ought not to forbear.” L’Estrange, <mdit>Seneca’s Morals<med>, p. 212.


George Washington to Henry Knox, 8 Sept. 1791, in ibid., XXXI, 360.


62. George Washington to George Lewis, 9 April 1797, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Retirement Series, I, 90.


63. John Parke Custis to George Washington, 5 July 1773, in ibid., Colonial Series, IX, 265.


John Ferling, <mdit>The First of Men: A Life of George Washington<med> (Knoxville, 1988), p. 306. Ferling speculates he did this as “if in his pain and despair he might record unmanly thoughts.” There is, unfortunately, no way of knowing.


George Washington to Lafayette, 25 March 1787, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, V, 107.


George Washington to Burgess Ball, 22 Sept. 1799 in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXVII, 372. Emphasis added. It should be noted that between his father’s business ventures in various parts of Virginia and his trips to England, Washington had relatively little contact with him and, according to George Washington Parke Custis, Washington only remembered that his father was a large man with a fair complexion. I would like to thank one of the anonymous reviewers for this observation.


George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 Sept. 1789, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, IV, 32.


68. George Washington to George Lewis, 9 April 1797, in ibid., Retirement Series, I, 90.


69. George Washington to Bushrod Washington, 10 Jan. 1787 in ibid., Confederation Series, IV, 509-10.


70. George Washington to Fanny Bassett Washington Lear, 24 Feb. 1793, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXII, 354.


George Washington to Henry Lee, 20 Jan. 1793, in ibid., XXXII, 373.


72. William Fairfax to Lawrence Washington, 20 Oct. 1747, in Moncure Daniel Conway, <mdit >Barons of the Potomac and the Rappahannock<med> (New York, 1892), p. 256.


73. George Mason to Sarah Mason McCarty, 10 Feb. 1785, in Robert Rutland, ed., <mdit>The Papers of George Mason, 1725-1792, 3 vols.<med> (Chapel Hill, 1970), III, p. 810. Mason speaks of his wife dying confident of “eternal happiness.” (Rutland, I, p. 481.)


74. Quoted in Edwin S. Gaustad, <mdit>Sworn Upon the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson<med> (Grand Rapids and Cambridge, U. K., 1996), p. 142.


75. Mechal Sobel, <mdit>The World they Made Together: Black and White Values in Eighteenth-Century Virginia<med> (Princeton, 1987), devotes a chapter to the question of attitudes toward death and afterlife in Virginia [pp. 214-25]. She credits African influence for the growing belief in reunion of loved ones in heaven. “By the late eighteenth century, heaven was being written of widely by whites. The dying spoke to their kin of the afterlife as a perfect world where “we shall ere long be reunited never again to separated from those we love.” “We’ll meet in heaven” became the acceptable parting for loved ones.” p. 223. This question needs additional research to get a better and more accurate sense of how Virginians felt in the late eighteenth century.


76. Boller, <mdit>Washington and Religion<med>, p. 114.


77. George Washington to Henry Knox, 27 April 1787, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, V, 157. Emphasis added.


78. George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 Sept. 1789, in ibid., Presidential Series, IV, 32. Emphasis added.


79. George Washington to Lafayette, 8 Dec. 1784, in ibid., Confederation Series, II, 175. Emphasis added.


According to the Reverend James Muir, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Washington’s last words included the statement, “I die hard…will this Struggle last long? - I hope I have nothing to fear.” Quoted in Mary Thompson, “George Washington and Religion”, ViMtvL, copy in possession of author. While clearly this quote implies concern over being judged, preference certainly must be given to Lear’s account since he was there and Muir’s account is second hand at best. I think the query of the Reverend Samuel Miller is pertinent. “How was it possible, he asked, for a true Christian, in the full exercise of his mental faculties, to die without one expression of distinctive belief, or Christian hope?” Boller, <mdit>Washington and Religion<med>, p. 89.


The efforts to make Washington more of a Christian than the facts warrant began early and continues to this day. Among the early biographies, of course, the classic example is Parson Weems’ biography which has Washington send everyone out of the room so that he can commune alone with God and then die with the final words, “Father of mercies, take me to Thyself.” Peter S. Onuf, <mdit>The Life of Washington: Mason Locke Weems<med> (Armonk, N.Y and London, 1996), pp. 134-35. Other early examples: “He submitted to the inevitable stroke with…the confidence of a Christian,” in David Ramsey, <mdit>The Life of George Washington<med> ( 1807), p. 319. “He was a sincere believer in the Christian faith” in John Marshall, <mdit>The Life of George Washington, 5 vols.<med> (New York, 1969, reprint of 1804-7 edition, vol. V, p. 375. [Washington never] “had any doubt of the Christian religion” in Jared Sparks, <mdit>Life of Washington<med> (Boston, 1839), p. 525. “He died as he lived…a true Christian.” in J.F. Schroeder, <mdit>Life and Times of Washington<med> (Albany, N.Y., 1903, reprint of 1857edition), II, p. 685. All these volumes are at the library at Mount Vernon.


Martha Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, 15 Jan. 1800, in Fields, ed., <mdit>Worthy Partner<med>, p. 339.


Thomas Law to his brother, 15 Dec. 1799, in George Washington Papers, UVA.


John Parke Custis to Martha Washington, 5 July 1773, in Fields, ed., <mdit>Worthy Partner<med>, pp. 152-3.


John Parke Custis to George Washington, 5 July 1773, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Colonial Series, IX, 265. This letter almost implies that only Martha as the true “parent” needs solace.


86. George Washington to Robert Morris, 5 May 1787 in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIX, 211 and George Washington to Henry Knox, 10 Jan. 1788, in ibid., 378.


87. George Washington to Henry Knox, 25 Feb. 1787 in ibid., XXIX, 170, and George Washington to Lafayette 25 March 1787, in ibid., 184.


88. George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 20 June 1773, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Colonial Series, IX, 243.


George Washington to Betty Washington Lewis, 13 Sept. 1789, in ibid., Presidential Series, IV, 32.


George Washington to Clergy of Protestant Episcopal Church, 19 Aug. 1789, in ibid., Presidential Series, III, 497.


91. George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., 5 Jan. 1784, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXVII, 294.


George Washington to the Rector et. al of the United Episcopal Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter’s in ibid., XXXV, 411.


Tobias Lear to his Mary Stillson Lear, 16 Dec. 1799, ViMtvL.


94. George Washington to Burwell Bassett, 20 June 1773, in Abbot,

et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Colonial Series, IX, 243.


Burgess Ball to George Washington, 25 Aug. 1789, in ibid., Presidential Series, III, 536.


96. George Washington to Richard Washington, 20 Oct. 1761, in ibid., Colonial Series, VII, 80.


97. George Washington to Alexander Hamilton, 27 May 1798, in ibid., Retirement Series, II, 289.


“Shades of darkness” - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIX, 28; “from whence no Traveller returns” - Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Presidential Series, IV, 1. Washington takes this quote from Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1; “dreary mansions of my fathers” - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXVIII, 6-7; Also Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, I, 258; “sleep with my fathers”- ibid., Confederation Series, I, 88; “Stroke” - Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXVI, 108. “My glass is almost run” - Quoted in Randall, <mdit>Washington<med>, p. 499.


George Washington to Lafayette, 15 Aug. 1787, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXIX, 259. Emphasis added.


100. Freeman, <mdit>Washington,med>, II, 387-88; 397.


101. See in particular, Douglas Adair, <mdit>Fame and the Founding Fathers<med> (New York, 1974).


102. George Washington to Lafayette, 28 May 1788, in Abbot, et al, eds., <mdit>Washington Papers<med>, Confederation Series, VI, 297.


103. David Humphreys to George Washington, 17 July 1785, in ibid., Confederation Series, III, 131.


104. George Washington to James Tilghman, 5 June 1786, in ibid., Confederation Series, IV, 96.


George Washington to Sally Cary Fairfax, 25 Sept. 1758, in ibid., Colonial Series, VI, 122. This quote is often cited as if Washington gave it after hearing of the death of General James Wolfe at Quebec but that did not occur until 1759. Charles Royster, <mdit>A Revolutionary People at War<med> (Chapel Hill, 1979), demonstrated that many patriots felt the same way. In the words of a funeral orator in Massachusetts, “Who, that hath worth & merit, would not quit a present uncertain life to live eternally in the memory of present and future ages?”, p. 32.


106. Quoted in Smith, <mdit>Washington: A Profile<med>, p. 47. Emphasis added.


107. George Washington to Tobias Lear, 30 March 1796, in Fitzpatrick, ed., <mdit>Writings of Washington<med>, XXXV, 6.


108. George Washington to Bryan Fairfax, 20 Jan. 1799, in ibid., XXXVII, 94-95.



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