The Life of George Washington By David Ramsay Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen — Washington Retires

The pleasing emotions which are excited in ordinary men on their acquisition of power, were inferior to those which Washington felt on the resignation of it. To his tried friend, Gen. Knox, on the day preceding the termination of his office in a letter-- "To the weary traveller who sees a resting place, and is bending his body thereon, I now compare myself. Although the prospect of retirement is most grateful to my soul, and I have not a wish to mix again in the great world, or to partake in its politics, yet I am not without regret at parting with (perhaps never more to meet) the few intimates whom I love. Among these be assured you are one."

The numerous calumnies of which Washington was the subject, drew from him no public animadversions, except in one case. A volume of letters, said to be from Gen. Washington to John Parke Custis and Lund Washington, were published by the British, in the year 1776, and were given to the public as being found in a small portmanteau, left in the care of his servant, who it was said by the editors, had been taken prisoner in Fort Lee. These letters were intended to produce in the public mind, impressions unfavourable to the integrity of Washington's motives, and to represent his inclinations as at variance with his profession and duty.

When the first edition of these spurious letters was forgotten, they were republished during Washington's civil administration, by some of his fellow-citizens who differed from him in politics. On the morning of the last day of his Presidency, he addressed a letter to the Secretary of State, in which, after enumerating all the facts and dates connected with the forgery, and declaring that he had hitherto deemed it unnecessary to take any formal notice of the imposition, he concluded as follows--

"But as I cannot know a more serious event may succeed to that which will this day take place, I have thought it a duty that I owed to myself, to my country, and to truth, now to detail the circumstances above recited, and to add my solemn declaration, that the letters herein described, are a base forgery; and that I never saw of heard of them until they appeared in print. The present letter I commit to your care, and desire it may be deposited in the office of the department of state, as a testimony of the truth to the present generation and to posterity."

The moment now approached which was to terminate the official character of Washington, and in which that of his successor, John Adams, was to commence. The old and new President walked in together to the House of Representatives, where the oath of office was administered to the latter. On this occasion Mr. Adams concluded an impressive speech with a handsome compliment to his predecessor, by observing, that though he was about to retire, "his name may still be a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark against all open or secret enemies of his country."

The immense concourse of citizens who were present, gazed with love and affection on the retiring Washington, while cheerfulness overspread his countenance and joy filled his heart, on seeing another invested with the high authorities he so long exercised, and the way opened for his returning to the long wished-for happiness of domestic private life. After paying his most respectful compliments to the new President, he set out for Mount Vernon, the scene of enjoyment which he preferred to all others. His wished to travel privately were in vain; for wherever he passed, the gentlemen of the country took every occasion of testifying their respect for him. In his retirement he continued to receive the most flattering addresses from legislative bodies, and various classes of his fellow-citizens.

During the eight years administration of Washington, the United States enjoyed prosperity and happiness at home; and, by the energy of the government, regained among foreigners that importance and reputation, which, by its weakness, they had lost. The debts contracted in the revolutionary war, which, from the imbecility of the old government, had depreciated to an insignificant sum, were funded; and such ample revenues provided for the payment of the interest and the gradual extinction of the principal, that their real and nominal value were in a little time nearly the same. The government was so firmly established as to be cheerfully and universally obeyed.

The only exception was an insurrection in the western counties of Pennsylvania, which was quelled without bloodshed. Agriculture and commerce were extended far beyond what had ever before taken place. The Indians on the frontiers had been first compelled by force to respect the United States, and to continue in peace; and afterwards a humane system was commenced for teaching them to exchange the tomahawk and hatchet for the plough, the hoe, the shuttle, and the spinning-wheel. The free navigation of the Mississippi had been acquired with the consent of Spain, and all differences compromised with that power. The military posts which had been long held by Britain within the United States, were peaceably given up. The Mediterranean was opened to American vessels in consequence of treaties made with the Barbary powers.

Indeed, differences with all powers, either contiguous to or connected with the United States, had been amicably adjusted, with the exception of France. To accomplish this very desirable object, Washington made repeated advances; but it could not be obtained without surrendering the independence of the nation, and its right of self-government.

Washington, on returning to Mount-Vernon, resumed agricultural pursuits. These, with the society of men and books, gave to every hour innocent and interesting employment, and promised a serene evening of his life. Though he wished to withdraw not only from public office, but from all anxiety respecting public affairs, yet he felt too much for his country to be indifferent to its interests. He heard with regret the repeated insults offered by the French Directory to the United States, in the person of their ministers, and the injury done to their commerce by illegal capture of their vessels. These indignities and injuries, after a long endurance and a rejection of all advances for an accommodation, at length roused the government, in the hands of Mr. Adams, to adopt vigorous measures. To be in readiness to repel a threatened invasion, Congress authorized the formation of a regular army.

As soon as the adoption of this measure was probable, the eyes of all were once more turned on Washington as the most suitable person to be at its head. Letters from his friends poured in upon him, urging that he should accept the command. To one from President Adams, in which it was observed-- "We must have your name if you will in any case permit us to use it; there will be more efficacy in it, than in many an army"

Washington replied as follows-- "At the epoch of my retirement, an invasion of these states by any European power, or even the probability of such an event in my days, was so far from being contemplated by me, that I had no conceptions either that, or any other occurrence, would arrive in so short a period, which could turn my eyes from the shades of Mount-Vernon.

"But this seems to be the age of wonders; and it is reserved for intoxicated and lawless France, (for purposes far beyond the reach of human ken) to slaughter her own citizens, and to disturb the repose of all the world besides. From a view of the past; from the prospect of the present; and of that which seems to be expected, it is not easy for me to decide satisfactorily on the part it might best become me to act. In case of actual invasion by a formidable force, I certainly should not intrench myself under the cover of age and retirement, if my services should be required by my country to assist in repelling it. And if there be good cause to expect such an event, which certainly must be better known to the government than to private citizens, delay in preparing for it may be dangerous, improper, and not to be justified by prudence. The uncertainty, however, of the latter, in my mind, creates my embarrassment; for I cannot bring it to believe, regardless as the French are of treaties and of the laws of nations, and capable as I conceive them to be of any species of despotism and injustice, that they will attempt to invade this country, after such a uniform and unequivocal expression of the determination of the people in all parts to oppose them with their lives and fortunes. That they have been led to believe by their agents and partisans among us, that we are a divided people; that the latter are opposed to their own government; and that the show of a small force would occasion a revolt, I have no doubt; and how far these men, (grown desperate), will further attempt to deceive, and may succeed in keeping up the deception, is problematical. Without that, the folly of the Directory in such an attempt would, I conceive, be more conspicuous, if possible, than their wickedness.

"Having with candour made this disclosure of the state of my mind, it remains only for me to add, that to those who know me best it is best known, that should imperious circumstances induce me to exchange once more the smooth paths of retirement for the thorny ways of public life, at a period too when repose is more congenial to nature, that it would be productive of sensations which can be more easily conceived than expressed."

To the Secretary of War, writing on the same subject, Washington replied-- "It cannot be necessary for me to premise to you, or to others who know my sentiments, that to quit the tranquility of retirement, and enter the boundless field of responsibility, would be productive of sensations which a better pen than I possess would find it difficult to describe. Nevertheless, the principle by which my conduct has been actuated through life, would not suffer me, in any great emergency, to withhold my services I could render when required by my country; especially in a case where its dearest rights are assailed by lawless ambition and intoxicated power, in contempt of every principle of justice, and in violation of solemn compact, and of laws which govern all civilized nations; and this too with the obvious intent to sow thick the seeds of disunion, for the purpose of subjugating our government, and destroying our independence and happiness.

"Under circumstance like these, accompanied by an actual invasion of our territory, it would be difficult for me at any time to remain an idle spectator, under the plea of age or retirement. With sorrow, it is true, I should quit the shades of my peaceful abode, and the ease and happiness I now enjoy, to encounter anew the turmoils of war, to which possibly my strength and powers might be found incompetent. These, however, should not be stumbling blocks in my own way."

"President Adams nominated Washington with the rank of Lieutenant-General, to the chief command of all the armies raised and to be raised in the United States. His commission was sent to him by Mr. McHenry, the Secretary of War, who was directed to repair to Mount Vernon, and to confer on the arrangements of the new army with its commander in chief. To the letter which President Adams sent with the commission by the Secretary of War, Washington, in two days, replied as follows:

"I had the honour, on the evening of the 11th instant, to receive from the hand of the Secretary of War, your favour of the 7th, announcing that you had, with the advice and consent of the Senate, appointed me 'Lieutenant-General and Commander in Chief of the armies raised, or to be raised, for the service of the United States.'

"I cannot express how greatly affected I am at this new proof of public confidence, and the highly flattering manner in which you have been pleased to make the communication. At the same time I must not conceal from you my earnest wish, that the choice had fallen upon a man less declined in years, and better qualified to encounter the usual vicissitudes of war.

"You know, sir, what calculation I had made relative to the probable course of events, on my retiring from office, and the determination I had consoled myself with, of closing the remnant of my days in my present peaceful abode. You will therefore be at no loss to conceive and appreciate the sensations I must have experienced, to bring my mind to any conclusion that would pledge me, at so late a period of late, to leave scenes I sincerely love, to enter upon the boundless field of public action, incessant trouble, and high responsibility.

"It was not possible for me to remain ignorant of, or indifferent to, recent transactions. The conduct of the Directory of France, towards our country; their insidious hostility to its government; their various practices to withdraw the affections of the people from it; the evident tendency of their acts, and those of their agents, to countenance and invigorate opposition; their disregard of solemn treaties and the laws of nations; their war upon our defenceless commerce; their treatment of our ministers of peace; and their demands, amounting to tribute, could not fail to excite in me corresponding sentiments with those my countrymen have so generally expressed in their affectionate addresses to you. Believe me, sir, no one can more cordially approve of the wise and prudent measures of your administration. They ought to inspire universal confidence, and will, no doubt, combined with the state of things, cal, from Congress such laws and means as will enable you to meet the full force and extent of the crisis.

"Satisfied, therefore, that you have sincerely wished and endeavoured to avert war, and exhausted, to the last drop, the cup of reconciliation, we can with pure hearts appeal to Heaven for the justice of our Cause; and may confidently trust the final result to that kind Providence who has heretofore, and so often, signally favoured the people of these United States.

"Thinking in this manner, and feeling how incumbent it is upon every person of every description, to contribute at all times to his country's welfare, and especially in a moment like the present, when every thing we hold dear and sacred is so seriously threatened; I have finally determined to accept the commission of Commander in Chief of the armies of the United States; with the reserve only, that I shall not be called into the field until the army is in a situation to require my presence, or it becomes indispensable by the urgency of circumstances.

"In making this reservation, I beg it to be understood, that I do not mean to withhold any assistance to arrange and organize the army, which you may think I can afford. I take the liberty also to mention, that I must decline having my acceptance considered as drawing after it any immediate charge upon the public; or that I can receive any emoluments annexed to the appointment, before entering a situation to incur expense."

The time of Washington after the receipt of this appointment, was divided between agricultural pursuits and the cares and attentions which were imposed by his new office. The organization of the army was, in a great measure, left to him. Much of his time was employed in making a proper selection of officers, and arranging the whole army in the best possible manner to meet the invaders at the water's edge; for he contemplated a system of continued attack, and frequently observed, "that the enemy must never be permitted to gain foothold on the shores of the United States."

Yet he always thought that an actual invasion of the country was very improbable. He believed that the hostile measures of France took their rise from an expectation that these measures would produce a revolution of power in the United States, favourable to the views of the French republic; and that when the spirit of the Americans was roused, the French would give up the contest. Events soon proved that these opinions were well founded; for no sooner had the United States armed, than they were treated with respect, and an indirect communication was made that France would accommodate all matters in dispute on reasonable terms.

Mr. Adams embraced these overtures, and made a second appointment of three envoys, extraordinary to the French republic. These, on repairing to France, found the Directory overthrown, and the government in the hands of Bonaparte, who had taken no part in the disputes which had brought the two countries to the verge of war. With him negociations were commenced, and soon terminated in a pacific settlement of all differences. The joy to which this event gave birth was great; but in it General Washington did not partake, for before accounts arrived of this amicable adjustment, he ceased to be numbered among the living.

On the 13th of December, 1799, his hair and neck were sprinkled with a light rain, while he was out of doors attending to some improvements on his estate. In the following night he was seized with an inflammatory affection of the windpipe, attended with pain, and a difficult deglutition, which was soon succeeded by fever, and a laborious respiration. He was bled in the night, but would not permit his family physician to be sent before day. About 11 o'clock A.M. Dr. Craik arrived, and rightly judging that the case was serious, recommended that two consulting physicians should be sent for. The united powers of all three were in vain; in about twenty-four hours from the time he was in his usual health, he expired without a struggle, and in the perfect use of his reason.

In every stage of his disorder he believed that he should die, and he was so much under this impression, that he submitted to the prescriptions of his physicians more from a sense of duty than expectation of relief. After he had given them a trial, he expressed a wish that he might be permitted to die without further interruption. Towards the close of his illness, he undressed himself and went to bed, to die there. To his friend and physician, Dr. Craik, he said, "I am dying, and have been dying for a long time, but I am not afraid to die." The equanimity which attended him through life, did not forsake him in death. He was the same in that moment as in all the past, magnanimous and firm; confiding in the mercy and resigned to the will of Heaven. He submitted to the inevitable stroke with the dignity of a man, the calmness of a philosopher, the resignation and confidence of a christian.

On the 18th, his body, attended by military honours and the offices of religion, was deposited in the family vault on his estate.

When intelligence reached Congress of the death of Washington, they instantly adjourned until the next day, when John Marshall, then a member of the House of Representatives, and since Chief Justice of the United States, and biographer of Washington, addressed the speaker in the following words:

"The melancholy event which was yesterday announced with doubt, has been rendered but too certain. Our Washington is no more. The hero, the patriot, and the sage 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.

"If, sir, it had even not been usual openly to testify respect for the memory of those whom Heaven has selected as its instruments for dispensing good to man, yet such has been the uncommon worth, and such the extraordinary incidents which have marked the life of him whose loss we all deplore, that the whole American nation, impelled by the same feelings, would call with one voice for a public manifestation of that sorrow, which is so deep and so universal.

"More than any other individual, and as to much as to one individual was possible, has he contributed to found this our wide spreading empire, and to give to the western world, independence and freedom.

"Having effected the great object for which he was placed as the head of our armies, we have seen him convert the sword into the ploughshare, and sink the soldier into the citizen.

"When the debility of our federal system had become manifest, and the bonds which connected this vast continent were dissolving, we have seen him the chief of those patriots who formed for us a constitution, which, by preserving the union, will, I trust, substantiate and perpetuate those blessings which our revolution had promised to bestow.

"In obedience to the general voice of his country, calling him to preside over a great people, we have seen him once more quit the retirement he loved, and in a season more stormy and tempestuous than war itself, with calm and wise determination pursue the true interests of the nation, and contribute more than any other could contribute, to the establishment of that system of policy which will, I trust, yet preserve our peace, our honour, and our independence.

"Having been twice been chosen the chief magistrate of a free people, we have seen him, at a time when his re-election with universal suffrage could not be doubted, afford to the world a rare instance of moderation, by withdrawing from his station to the peaceful walks of private life.

"However the public confidence may change, and the public affections fluctuate with respect to others, with respect to him they have, in war and in peace, in public and in private life, been as steady as his own firm mind, and as constant as his own exalted virtues.

"Let us then, Mr. Speaker, pay the last tribute of respect and affection to our departed friend. Let the grand council of the nation display those sentiments which the nation feels. For this purpose I hold in my hand some resolutions which I take the liberty of offering to the house.

"Resolved, That this House will wait on the President, in condolence of this mournful event.

"Resolved, That the Speaker's chair be shrouded with black, and that the members and officers of the house wear black during the session.

"Resolved, That a committee, in conjunction with one from the Senate, be appointed to consider on the most suitable manner of paying honour to the memory of the man, first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens."

The Senate of the United States, on this melancholy occasion, addressed to the President in these words:

"The Senate of the United States respectfully take leave, sir, to express to you their deep regret for the loss their country sustains in the death of Gen. George Washington.

"This event, so distressing to all our fellow-citizens, must be peculiarly heavy to you, who have long been associated with him in deeds of patriotism. Permit us, sir, to mingle our tears with yours. On this occasion it is manly to weep. To lose such a man, at such a crisis, is no common calamity to the world. Our country mourns a father. The Almighty Disposer of human events, has taken from us our greatest benefactor and ornament. It becomes us to submit with reverence to him 'who maketh darkness his pavillion.'

"With patriotic pride we review the life of our Washington, and compare him with those of other countries who have been pre-eminent in fame. Ancient and modern times are diminished before him. Greatness and guilt have too often been allied; but his fame is whiter than it is brilliant. The destroyers of nations stood abashed at the majesty of his virtues. It reproved the intemperance of their ambition, and darkened the splendour of victory. The scene is closed, and we are no longer anxious lest misfortune should sully his glory; he has travelled on to the end of his journey, and carried with him an increasing weight of honour; he has deposited it safely where misfortune cannot tarnish it-- where malice cannot blast it. Favoured of Heaven, he departed without exhibiting the weakness of humanity. Magnanimous in death, the darkness of the grave could not obscure his brightness.

"Such was the man whom we deplore. Thanks to God, his glory is consummated. Washington yet lives on earth in his spotless example-- his spirit is in Heaven.

"Let his countrymen consecrate the memory of the heroic general, the patriotic statesman, and the virtuous sage. Let them teach their children never to forget, that the fruits of his labours and his example are their inheritance."

Continue to Chapter Thirteen Part 2 of The Life of Washington