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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The mortality of Washington

by Philip Martin | February 16, 2021 at 4:05 a.m.

"Instead of adoring a Washington, mankind should applaud the nation which educated him ... I glory in the character of a Washington, because I know him to be only an exemplification of the American character."

-- John Adams, 1785

On Dec. 12, 1799, George Washington, a robust 67-year-old, went out on horseback to supervise the work on his Mount Vernon farm. It was a wet and miserable day, and snow began to fall as he made the rounds. When he returned from the fields, his private secretary Tobias Lear wrote, he chose to remain in wet clothes until after supper.

About 2 a.m., Washington woke his wife Martha to tell her he felt very sick. He could barely breathe or talk. Martha wanted to get help at once, but Washington worried about her going out in the cold because she had only recently recovered from illness herself. So they laid together in bed until about 7 a.m., when the chambermaid arrived to make a fire. Martha told her to get Lear at once.

Lear sent a servant to fetch Dr. James Craik, nine miles away in Alexandria, and in the meantime, prepared a concoction of molasses, vinegar and butter. Washington tried to gargle the potion but, Lear wrote, "he could not swallow a drop" and it caused him to be "distressed, convulsed and almost suffocated."

Lear also summoned George Rawlins, the overseer of one of Washington's farms, to draw the former president's blood, in an attempt to balance the humors of his body and restore his health.

(Some accounts say it was Albin Rawlins, George's brother, who worked under Lear as a clerk copying Washington's correspondence and organizing his papers, who bled the president. But Lear clearly writes he sent for "Rawlins (the overseer).")

At the end of the 19th century, bloodletting was still a common practice, but one more often practiced by barbers than physicians (who recommended but rarely practiced the method; the traditional red and white barber pole is a remnant of the barber's medical role).

So it would not have been that unusual for a man who worked with livestock and presumably had some veterinary experience to carry out an emergency bleeding. Still, Lear reports, Rawlins was extremely nervous (all the more so because Martha, despite her husband's confidence in the treatment, thought it inappropriate to treat a sore throat with a slashed arm) and had to be urged by Washington to cut into his upper arm.

"Don't be afraid," Washington croaked. And after Rawlins made the cut, the general thought it was too small, though "the blood ran pretty freely." They stopped the flow after drawing off about half a pint of blood, and employed other equally ineffective methods to fight back the infection.

When Dr. Craik arrived, he applied a blister that contained dried beetles to Washington's throat. Two other doctors arrived; they eventually drained about 40 percent of the blood from Washington's body. They considered performing a newly described procedure, a tracheotomy on the patient, but Washington was exhausted and accepting of his fate.

At around 4:30 p.m. Dec. 14, he asked Martha to go downstairs and take from his desk two wills he had prepared. When she brought them to him he looked them over, chose one and asked her to burn the other. In so many words, he told the doctors to leave him alone.

Sometime after 10 p.m. he spoke to Lear, betraying the common horror of people of the time of being buried alive: "Have me decently buried; and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead."

He asked if Lear understood him; when he had the assurance he said, "'Tis well."

He died about 10 minutes later.

There is a school of thought that holds George Washington was essentially tortured to death by his doctors; though other informed sources say that while the bleeding did him no good, it likely was not a primary cause of death. Mount Vernon's website says flatly Washington died of quinsy, an inflammation of the tonsils. But more experts today think it was probably acute bacterial epiglottitis that killed our first president.

It is important that we understand Washington and the doctors who treated him were not stupid. They were creatures of their time, lacking the advantages years of human experience and technological progress afford us. Certainly he wouldn't die from a sore throat today, but people often died from less in those days, and the men attending Washington did their best.

It is possible to admire Washington while taking into account his terrible humanity. He famously emancipated his slaves in that will that Martha preserved, though he bound them until after his wife's death. (She did not wait for that, and freed them in 1801.)

We might surmise Washington knew slavery was immoral but found it impossible to divorce himself from the benefits of slaveholding. He was brave, but not brave enough, at least not for the modern imagination.

Washington might seem like a stiff to those who know him only through Parson Weems' cherry tree myths. He seems born to be venerated; existing most naturally as a marble bust, familiar yet impenetrable, looming large over our nation's creation story, an impossibly remote American Moses delivering a chosen people from the tyranny of the Imperial British: the father of his country, the cardinal personification of the United States, the First Hero.

We carry his portrait in our wallets. Our capital city, a state, and at least 33 counties and seven mountains are named for him. The essence of his personality has always been elusive.

Maybe that's for the best. In his letters, Washington comes off as brusque and business-like, a haggler. He was a self-made Ur-American with a well-documented lust for land and social standing. He might never have agreed to lead the Continental Army had he secured the royal commission he sought again and again during the French and Indian War. But then again, he could have installed himself as emperor and did not.

He was a man of his time but also a transcendent figure, the strong leader of a weak country who somehow was able to imagine a new kind of greatness. Washington walked away from power after his second term, which established a convention that was followed until FDR and subsequently made into law.

Before Washington, to be great was to be triumphant, to be the conqueror. A great man was ruthless, a sponge for power. In an age when the prevailing political ideology held that the right to rule was vested in special men selected by God, Washington resisted the kingdom they laid at his feet: The American president was a leader, not a ruler.

And he was entirely mortal.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at [email protected] and read his blog at


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