The True George Washington: Physique: His Death

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

His Death

Washington's final illness began December 12, 1799, in a severe cold taken by riding about his plantation while "rain, hail and snow" were "falling alternately, with a cold wind." When he came in late in the afternoon, Lear "observed to him that I was afraid that he had got wet, he said no his great coat had kept him dry; but his neck appeared to be wet and the snow was hanging on his hair." The next day he had a cold, "and complained of having a sore throat," yet, though it was snowing, none the less he "went out in the afternoon ... to mark some trees which were to be cut down." "He had a hoarseness which increased in the evening; but he made light of it as he would never take anything to carry off a cold, always observing, 'let it go as it came.'" At two o'clock the following morning he was seized with a severe ague, and as soon as the house was stirring he sent for an overseer and ordered the man to bleed him, and about half a pint of blood was taken from him. At this time he could "swallow nothing," "appeared to be distressed, convulsed and almost suffocated."

There can be scarcely a doubt that the treatment of his last illness by the doctors was little short of murder. Although he had been bled once already, after they took charge of the case they prescribed "two pretty copious bleedings," and finally a third, "when about 32 ounces of blood were drawn," or the equivalent of a quart. Of the three doctors, one disapproved of this treatment, and a second wrote, only a few days after Washington's death, to the third, "you must remember" Dr. Dick "was averse to bleeding the General, and I have often thought that if we had acted according to his suggestion when he said, 'he needs all his strength— bleeding will diminish it,' and taken no more blood from him, our good friend might have been alive now. But we were governed by the best light we had; we thought we were right, and so we are justified."

Shortly after this last bleeding Washington seemed to have resigned himself, for he gave some directions concerning his will, and said, "I find I am going," and, "smiling," added, that, "as it was the debt which we must all pay, he looked to the event with perfect resignation." From this time on "he appeared to be in great pain and distress," and said, "Doctor, I die hard, but I am not afraid to go. I believed from my first attack that I should not survive it." A little later he said, "I feel myself going. I thank you for your attention, you had better not take any more trouble about me; but let me go off quietly." The last words he said were, "'Tis well." "About ten minutes before he expired, his breathing became much easier—he lay quietly—... and felt his own pulse.... The general's hand fell from his wrist,... and he expired without a struggle or a Sigh."