Today in History

Today in History: December 14

The Death of George Washington

I leave you with undefiled hands, an uncorrupted heart, and with ardent vows to heaven for the welfare and happiness of that country in which I and my forefathers to the third or fourth progenitor drew our first breath.

George Washington in his Farewell Address to the People of the United States, September 17, 1796.
George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799

George Washington
Washington,
Léon Cogniet, painter, Laugier, engraver,
1839.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

At 10:00 p.m. on December 14, 1799, George Washington died at his Mt. Vernon home after five decades of service to his country. His last words reportedly were: "I feel myself going. I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me. Let me go off quietly. I cannot last long." Washington was sixty-seven years old.

After the Revolutionary War, Washington hoped to live as a gentleman farmer in Virginia, yet he repeatedly deferred this wish in order to serve his country. Called to the presidency in 1789, he told the citizens of Alexandria, Virginia, on April 16 of that year, "my love of retirement is so great, that no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution 'never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature.'" Unanimously re-elected to the presidency, he completed a second term and retired in 1796. As late as 1798, however, when war with France seemed imminent, Washington again accepted command of American forces.

A couple standing at the door of Washington's tomb
Washington's Tomb at Mount Vernon,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Henry Lee's eulogy for Washington (external link) —"first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen"—accurately and touchingly memorialized the man so often called the "father of our country." By the time of his death, Washington was admired throughout the world. As the news spread, Napoleon's armies and the British channel fleet paid homage to his memory. In this country, Gouverneur Morris delivered "An Oration upon the Death of General Washington" urging Americans to uphold the standards of wisdom and honesty set by Washington.

The astounding array of places named for the first president and the memorials celebrating his life attest to Washington's honored position in the national memory. Among these places are the United States capital, Washington, D.C., its Washington Monument, and Washington State. Commemorative artwork celebrating Washington and his accomplishments was a common feature of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century homes. The many turn-of-the century postcard views of portraits, Washington's plantation, and even his military quarters further evidence public fascination with the life of George Washington.

Statue of Washington
George Washington University, Bronze Statue of George Washington I,
Theodor Horydczak, photographer,
circa 1920-1950.
Washington as It Was: Photographs by Theodor Horydczak, 1923-1959

Explore the following American Memory resources to learn more about George Washington: