Post-presidency of George Washington
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Post-presidency of George Washington
Post-presidency of George Washington
George Washington
(The Constable-Hamilton Portrait)

Gilbert Stuart 1797
President of the United States

April 30, 1789[a] - March 4, 1797
Personal details
Born(1732-02-22)February 22, 1732
Popes Creek, Colony of Virginia, British America
DiedDecember 14, 1799(1799-12-14) (aged 67)
Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Cause of deathEpiglottitis and hypovolemic shock
Resting placeWashington Family Tomb, Mount Vernon, Virginia, U.S.
Martha Dandridge (m. 1759)

George Washington began his post-presidency, after two terms in the presidential office, on March 4, 1797. America's first President under the U.S. Constitution, Washington had served two consecutive terms in office. He returned to his beloved home Mount Vernon, on March 15. Immediately, he began months of repair due to neglect and mismanagement. In time he was able to restore the Mount Vernon mansion-house, but the salvaging of his farms proved to be problematic. Throughout his retirement, Washington entertained local friends, former official associates, and strangers who wished to converse and see America's first president, the Revolutionary War hero, and founder of the nation.[2]

Washington followed closely the affairs of state, including the growing tension between France and the United States, that by the Spring of 1798, developed into a Quasi-War. Attacked politically by anti-Federalists, Washington was careful to preserve his personal legacy. President John Adams on July 2, 1798, appointed Washington Lieutenant General and Commander of America's newly augmented army. Washington insisted that active command be vested in Alexander Hamilton, whom Adams appointed Major General and Inspector of the Armies.[2] Washington performed his duties but Adams was jealous of Hamilton and was a proponent of naval power. Adams, however, was able through diplomacy to end the Franco-American War. [3]

During the summer of 1799, Washington drafted a new will, that left most of his estate to his wife Martha, but unexpectedly, set free all the slaves which he owned outright, a legal order to be fulfilled after his wife's death.[3] Washington's will was meant to be an act of atonement for a lifetime spent in human exploitation, while he hoped it would serve as an example to other slaveholders, and hasten the end of American slavery.[4] His post-presidency lasted less than three years until his sudden illness and death, caused by a severe throat infection, December 1799. Washington's planned library, to preserve his war and presidential papers, never was built during his lifetime. In January 1801, Martha freed his slaves.[5]

The Washington Monument was completed in 1885. Mount Rushmore, completed in 1941, has a gigantic Washington stone portrait sculpture, to honor his presidency. In 2013, the Washington presidential library was completed and opened to the public.


George Washington, the first President elected under the U.S. Constitution, was born on February 22, 1732, in the colony of Virginia. Washington served in the Virginia militia, was appointed Lieutenant Colonel, and was British General Edward Braddock's aide-de-camp during the French and Indian War. In 1759 he married wealthy widow Martha Custis and the two established their home at Mount Vernon. From 1759 to 1774 Washington served in the House of Burgesses and was considered a "cautious and prudent Virginia aristocrat". From 1775 to 1783, Washington was the commander of the Continental army during the American Revolutionary War. After the war, the King granted America independence from Britain under the Treaty of Paris. Washington retired from the military and took up farming again at Mount Vernon, a celebrated war hero. Washingon was elected President of the United States in 1789 and served as President for two consecutive terms of office, reelected in 1792. John Adams was elected to office in 1796 and succeeded Washington as President in 1797.[6]

When Washington left office in 1797, the nation was divided into a two-party system, the Republicans and the Federalists, who controlled much of Congress. The dispute with France over Washington's alliance with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty had not been settled, and the country was on the verge of a Quasi-War. Except for strong political criticism from the Republicans, the public figure of Washington, however, was a legend as a General and the First President of the United States. Washington attended his successors John Adams Presidential Inauguration on March 4, in Philadelphia, and read aloud his final brief "farewell address", eager to return to his beloved home of Mount Vernon, after serving two consecutive terms of office.[7] Before his departure, Washington sold and gave away his belongings, including a writing desk that contained love letters from his wife Martha. [8]

Although no one dared to challenge Washington for the Presidency, his reputation, during the second half of this second term in office, was under scrutiny of the anti-Federalist, Republican Party, founded earlier by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Although Washington was neutral politically, his core beliefs sided mainly with the Federalist Party. On July 30, 1796, the Aurora, an anti-Federalist newspaper, published Thomas Pain's open letter to Washington. Paine, who had been imprisoned in France, said of Washington, "the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an impostor; whether you have abandoned good principles, or whether you ever had any." Pro-French Republican editorials accused Washington of being a "tyrannical monster" while his lauded Farewell Address was castigated "the loathings of a sick mind." Washington, however, was determined to defend his reputation.[9]

Return to Mount Vernon

A View of Mount Vernon With Washington Family On the Terrace
Artist: Latrobe 1796

Washington departed Philadelphia for Mount Vernon on March 9, 1799, and traveled with Martha, his granddaughter Nelly, and George Washington Lafayette. The party arrived at Mount Vernon "six days" later, having made a few stops along the way, as Washington was a celebrated hero. In April, Washington opined in a letter that he was "once more seated under my own vine and fig tree," and hoped "to spend the remainder of my days." Washington was so intent on staying within 25 miles of Mount Vernon, he declined to attend the wedding of his nephew Lawrence Augustine Washington.[10]

Washington's sister, Betty Lewis, died, and Washington was survived only by his younger brother Charles, the last of their generation of the Washington family. The death of Betty caused Washington "inexpressible concern."[11]

Washington sent much of his vast collection of paper archives on the Revolutionary War and his presidency to Mount Vernon. He had a letterpress delivered to make copies of his papers. The archives originally contained "30 to 40 cases" of military expeditions, journals, and Congressional correspondence. Washington originally planned to build a library house at Mount Vernon and had ordered bookcases for his collections. However, his death prevented the building of the library. Washington's collections and the planned library would be a precursor for the modern presidential library system adopted in the 20th Century by Congress. [12]


Upon his return, Washington found his five farms and buildings at Mount Vernon were in ruins. He diligently put to work carpenters, masons, and painters to fix the buildings, and the mansion house, while he made efforts to rehabilitate his farmlands.[13] Washington enjoyed what he called "the Music of hammers, or the odiferous smell of Paint."[14] The army of workers under Washington's command created large dust clouds over his lands. Washington believed the enormous cost of the renovations was the equivalent of "an entire new establishment."[15]

Daily schedule

Washington would wake promptly at 5 o'clock in the morning, would wake his hirelings, and give them their assignments for the day. Washington chastized those of "their indisposition" who did not show up for work. At seven o'clock Washington ate a meal of cornbread, butter, and honey. The meal was easy to eat and reduced the pain he suffered from ill-fitting dentures and swollen gums. Afterward, Washington mounted his horse and supervised his farms for six hours. He tended to his new distillery and ordered ditches to be widened. In one instance he monitored the health of a slave who was bitten by a crazed dog. Washington also forbade the poaching of deer on his lands. At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Washington returned to the mansion house and dined with guests at 3 o'clock. After the meal Washington showed his medals, prints of war battles by John Trumbell, and a key of the Bastille, a relic of the French Revolution, given him by Lafayette. At the time Washington was considered a "living legend", and many strangers visited Mount Vernon to see Washington in person.[16]

Republican and Federalist feud

James Monroe, a Republican operative, denounced the Jay Treaty in a 1798 publication.
Artist: Louis Semé 1794

During Washington's post-presidency the feud between Republicans and Federalists became toxic and inadvertently drew the former president into the foray. [17] In March 1798, James Monroe, a Republican, and former American Minister to France appointed by Washington, in a published address, was critical of Washington's recall of Monroe from office, in an attempt to cover up his own insubordination. Monroe's denouncement of the Jay Treaty was a direct attack on Washington, who was furious after he read Monroe's pamphlet. He went to his study, and responded by writing a line-by-line sarcastic and bitter critique of Monroe's tirade.[18]

Washington had also been informed of a bizarre plot invented by Thomas Jefferson's nephew Peter Carr, a Republican agitator. On September 25, 1797, Carr sent a letter to the General, under the pseudonym John Langhorne, to entice Washington to attack Republicans, that would be circulated in the Republican press. Washington did not respond and the plot was thwarted. Washington, however, took things further and blamed the plot on Jefferson. His relationship with fellow Virginian Jefferson disintegrated. In March 1798, Washington agreed with a negative assessment that Jefferson was "one of the most artful, intriguing, industrious and double-faced politicians in America."[19]

Washington went on the offensive. While visiting the Federal City, Washington publicly denounced the French Revolution. Washington through his letters described an overall conspiracy, beyond the pro-French Republicans, that was designed to overthrow the government. He wrote to Lafayette that "a party exists in the United States, formed by a combination of causes, who oppose the government in all its measures, and are determined (as all their conduct evinces) by clogging its wheels, indirectly to change the nature of it, and to subvert the Constitution." Washington also full hardily endorsed John Adams Federalist Alien and Sedition Acts passed by Congress, to quell the incendiary Republicans. [20] Washington was also vindicated, in the aftermath of the French bribery scandal, the XYZ Affair. The result was a public backlash against the Republicans support of the French government. [21]


Constellation captured the French Navy's frigate L'Insurgente

When Washington began his presidency in April 1789, France had been a strong ally with the United States, while Louis XVI strongly supported, financially and militarily, American independence from England, during the American Revolutionary War. Six days into his first term, the French Revolution plunged Europe into war, between France and England, while President Washington and his administration, chose to remain neutral. On January 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine. Matters became more complicated when Washington signed the Jay Treaty in 1794, during his second term, that gave an alliance to Britain rather than France. Starting in 1795, the French responded by capturing over 2,000 American merchant ships, while the American navy retaliated, attacked and captured, French naval ships.[22] The French revolutionary wars continued through Washington's post-presidency.

Upon assuming office, President Adams had to repair the damage caused by Washington's "shattered neutrality policy."[22] Preparation for war between the United States and France took place in 1798 after the XYZ Affair.[23] Unable to remain neutral, Adams had to respond to French belligerency on the high seas that culminated in what was called the Quasi-War. On July 2, 1798, Adams appointed Washington to Lieutenant General and Commander of the Provisional American Army, however, controversy ensued in choosing Washington's subordinate generals. On July 11, 1798, Secretary of State James McHenry, who personally traveled to Mount Vernon, presented Washington with letter and commission, already approved by Congress, from President Adams. [24] Washington accepted the commission but demanded he would not actively serve unless the French invaded the United States. A terrible controversy ensued over Washington's suggested appointments for his subordinate generals. Adams, who both respected and was jealous of Washington's military prowess, reluctantly agreed.[25]

Washington chose his former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton, who was recommended to Adams by Washington to be appointed Major General and Inspector General of the Army, while Henry Knox and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney were to serve as major generals.[3] Knox, who desired Hamilton's position, protested to Adams, who contemplated the change. When McHenry and Adam's Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr. protested Knox as second in command, Adams demurred to Washington and appointed Hamilton instead of Knox, who refused to take his commission as a major general. Washington remained at Mount Vernon, while Adams started negotiations with France. Although Washington would not live to the war's end, the crisis was resolved in 1800, through Adams' diplomacy.[3]

Emancipation will 1799

Since the Revolutionary War, Washington was troubled by slavery and had for some time been contemplating freeing his slaves and reducing the size of his plantation. Washington knew that posterity, or future generations, would judge him harshly for his ownership of slaves.[26] He initially planned to sell lands, free his slaves, and use the money from the sale of lands to support his slaves, however, he could not find any buyers.[4]

During the summer of 1799, Washington made a new will, that stipulated all of the 124 slaves he owned outright would be freed, conditioned upon the death of his wife Martha. Washington was concerned over the effects of splitting slave families, and on his wife Martha's financial status, so he delayed his slaves' freedom. Both the young and old would be cared for. The young freedmen would be brought up in a trade, while the elder freedmen would live off an annuity provided by Washington's estate. Washington was well aware of how divisive his abolition would be in slaveholding Virginia, so he demanded that his slaves would not be sold or forced to leave Virginia after their freedom. In this sense, Washington intention may have been for blacks and whites to live together in the Virginia Commonwealth as equal citizens, rather than be deported to Africa or recolonized.[27] Washington's elderly valet-shoemaker slave William Lee was freed outright for his "faithful services during the Revolutionary War."[27] Washington gave Lee a $30 annuity.[28]

Historian John Ferling believed that Washington's will was an act of atonement for the life he spent in human exploitation.[4] Additionally, Washington hoped that his example would lead other slave owners to take a similar step.[4] After Washington's death, Martha feared Washington's slaves were planning to kill her to obtain their freedom since Washington's will stipulated their freedom was contingent upon her death. To prevent this, although it was unlikely his slaves would have killed her, Martha manumitted all of Washington's slaves on January 1, 1801. [5][27] Washington nor his wife Martha could free any of the Custis slaves by law. These slaves would be reverted to the Custis estate, upon Martha's death, and divided among her grandchildren. [29] Washington's will and manumission (freedom) of his slaves had a reverse effect on Virginia society, who, in 1806, made more restrictive measures for slave owners to free their slaves.

Sudden sickness and death

Washington on his Deathbed
Artist: Stearns 1799

On December 12, 1799, a severe storm passed over Mount Vernon and the surrounding region that deposited heavy snow, sleet, and hail. Washington was not dismayed and he continued his rigorous routine of riding for five hours making rounds at Mount Vernon. When he returned to the mansion he refused to change his wet clothes, out of courtesy, so he could dine with his guests.[30] On December 13, Washington had a hoarse throat, yet he continued to work outside in the cold weather to mark trees for pruning. Although he knew he had a cold he refused to get treatment. He told himself, "Let it go as it came."[30]

The following day, at 3:00 AM on December 14, Washington woke up and was acutely ill, with his speaking voice barely audible and having extreme difficulty breathing.[31] Called to Mount Vernon, Dr. James Craik, Washington's personal physician plus two other doctors, Dr. Gustavus Brown and Dr. Elisha Dick arrived. Washington's condition rapidly worsened while his doctors purged, or bled him, and administered various standard medical procedures of the time period, all having no positive effect to help their dying patient.[32] Dr. Dick was strongly against Washington's fourth and final purge because it would seriously weaken Washington, whose skin color had turned blue, a condition of oxygen deprivation. Seeing the gravity of the situation, Dr. Dick, the youngest of the three consulting doctors, recommended a tracheotomy to allow air into Washington's lungs, and save their patient's life, but the two senior physicians refused to have the fairly-new surgical procedure performed[33] Towards midnight, unable to breathe, Washington died. The two senior physicians diagnosed Washington's fatal illness as quinsey or cynanche tracheal while Dick thought that the condition was a more serious "violent inflammation of the throat".[34] More recent scholarship has concluded that Washington most probably died of acute bacterial epiglottitis.[32]

Funeral and entombment

Following instructions in his will, Washington's military funeral took place on December 18, 1799, at Mount Vernon restricted to family, friends, and associates, rather than a grandiose state funeral.[35] The funeral started at 3:00 PM, when a schooner moored in the Potomac began firing its guns every minute.[35] Inscriptions on the silver-plate of Washington's coffin included "Surge Ad Judicium", meaning rise to judgment, and "Gloria Deo" meaning glory to God. Military officers and fellow masons served as pallbearers. A musical band from Alexandria played a funeral dirge. A Masonic apron and Washington's sword adorned his coffin, while his trusted horse was led by two slaves in black attire, as it passed in front of Washington's body. Washington's Dr. Elisha Dick attended the funeral and was in charge directing all of the Masonic rituals.[35] Mount Vernon since has become a patriotic destination for the American public to pay tribute to George Washington and for his contributions as the first President under the Constitution, and for his leadership as Commanding General during the American Revolutionary War. [36] Washington's body was interred inside his communal family vault, inside an overgrown hillside, under a knoll of trees, mixed in with other coffins, while Washington had left instruction for a new brick vault. [37] Early visitors of his vault complained of poor conditions and neglect. [37][b][c]

Philadelphia memorial service

On December 19, 1799, Congressman John Marshall formally announced to the House of Representatives that Washington had died at Mount Vernon. On December 23, Marshall spoke before Congress and initiated a process, that would become the groundworks for an organized federal-state funeral.[36] Congress proposed a marble memorial for Washington, in the Federal City, and additionally organized, a funeral procession in honor of Washington in Philadelphia. A week later, the procession was led by a trumpeter, and started from Congressional Hall through the streets of Philadelphia and ended at a German Lutheran Church. There General Henry Lee gave a memorial speech to Washington. Lee famously said Washington was "[f]irst in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."[40] Congress, however, later dominated by President Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, failed to go through on their pledge to fund and create a marble memorial to honor Washington, in the Federal City, that would soon bear his name, Washington D.C.. [40]


After his death, Washington was mourned by the nation and eulogized the "man who unites all hearts." Washington was viewed as a general and statesman who united Patriots during the Revolutionary War and held the nation together during his presidency. He was considered above all an "American", rather than a southerner or northerner.[41]

According to historian T.H. Breen, Washington "enhanced the legitimacy" of the U.S. Constitution. Breen said Washington "brought immense political capital to the presidency. He may have been the most charismatic person ever to hold the office. Everything about the man --- his behavior, dress, and pronouncements, even his coach --- became emblematic of the new constitutional order. In a profound symbolic sense, he was the new nation."[42]

On December 6, 1884 the Washington Monument to honor George Washington was completed and was dedicated on February 21, 1885.[43] In October 1941 the Mount Rushmore monument was completed that honored Washington first among three other presidents.[44][d]

Presidential library 2013

Washington Presidential Library

During the post-World War II patriotic-era of the 20th Century, Congress became concerned over the preservation of Presidential history and documents. The Presidential Libraries Act (1955) established presidential libraries for Presidents to be privately constructed and federally maintained. The Presidential Records Act (1978) established that document records of Presidents are the property of the United States. The Presidential Libraries Act (1986) required that private endowments be linked to the Presidential Libraries and to help pay the maintenance costs.[45]

In 1986, the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA), sought to educate the world of Washington's importance and life history. In 2010, MVLA planned the building of Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, to further the appreciation of Washington. The groundbreaking for the Library was in April 2011. The Library was completed and opened on September 27, 2013, to the public. The Library facility is 45,000 square feet and contains Washington's books, manuscripts, newspapers, and documents and also is a scholarly retreat and place of education.[46]


  1. ^ March 4 is the official start of the first presidential term. April 6 is when Congress counted the votes of the Electoral College and certified a president. April 30 is when Washington was sworn in.
  2. ^ In 1831 Washington's old family vault, that he was interred in, was broken into and bones were stolen. This created an alarm among his remaining family estate. The bones, not Washington's, were returned and Washington's nephew, Major Lawrence Lewis, the same year, made the new vault Washington had requested 31 years earlier.[38] The same year Washington's coffin and remains were moved to the new Vault. The front of the new tomb consisted of a gothic iron gateway mounted on the stone coping.[39]
  3. ^ On October 7, 1837, Washington and his original lead casket, were placed inside a sarcophagus, made by John Struthers, covered, and sealed. Rather than put into the damp new vault, inappropriate for public viewing, Struthers had a new structure built, specifically made for Washington, on the outside of the vault, with a marble floor, covered by a metal roof, and guarded by an iron gate, to protect from robbery and vandalism. The lid of Washington's sarcophagus was inscribed "WASHINGTON". A second marble sarcophagus was made for his wife Martha's remains, adjacent to Washington's sarcophagus and his remains.[39]
  4. ^ The Mount Rushmore Monument honored four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.[44]


  1. ^ Lillback & Newcombe 2006, pp. 1-1187.
  2. ^ a b Cooke 2002, p. 19.
  3. ^ a b c d Cooke 2002, pp. 19-20.
  4. ^ a b c d Ferling 2000, p. 277.
  5. ^ a b Flexner 1974, p. 397.
  6. ^ Cooke 2002, pp. 2-4, 18-19.
  7. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 767.
  8. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 769.
  9. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 245, 247.
  10. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 775.
  11. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 775-776.
  12. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 777.
  13. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 775-777; Ellis 2004, p. 241.
  14. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 241.
  15. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 776.
  16. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 241-242.
  17. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 247.
  18. ^ Ellis 2004, p. 245-246.
  19. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 246, 310.
  20. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 246-248.
  21. ^ Ellis 2004, pp. 247-248.
  22. ^ a b Akers 2002, p. 27.
  23. ^ Akers 2002, p. 29.
  24. ^ Grizzard 2002, p. 263.
  25. ^ Akers 2002, pp. 29-30.
  26. ^ Ferling 2000, p. 276.
  27. ^ a b c Smith.
  28. ^ MacLeod.
  29. ^ Ten Facts About Washington & Slavery.
  30. ^ a b Ellis 2004, p. 268.
  31. ^ Ferling 2000, p. 296; Cooke 2002, p. 20.
  32. ^ a b Wallenborn 1999.
  33. ^ Marx 1955.
  34. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 806-807; Lear 1799, p. 257.
  35. ^ a b c Chernow 2010, pp. 809-810.
  36. ^ a b Eliassen.
  37. ^ a b Chernow 2010, p. 810.
  38. ^ Wineberger 1858, pp. 39-40.
  39. ^ a b Wineberger 1858, pp. 41-47.
  40. ^ a b Chernow 2010, pp. 811-812.
  41. ^ Ferling 2000, p. 300.
  42. ^ Breen 2016, pp. 4-5.
  43. ^ & Washington Monument History & Culture 2018.
  44. ^ a b National Park Service Brochure 1965.
  45. ^ National Archives.
  46. ^ Washington Presidential Library.



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