Miller Center

George Washington: Life After the Presidency

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George Washington lived only two years after leaving the presidency. Mount Vernon had been neglected for decades, and Washington spent most of his remaining days trying to make it solvent and functional. As relations with France worsened in mid-1799, however, the former President was again called to public duty when President Adams named Washington commander of the American Army. But the old general was now showing his age, and his duties were limited to largely symbolic tasks. He insisted on leaving control of the Army to Hamilton.

On December 12, 1799, Washington noted in his diary, "At about ten o'clock it began to snow, soon after to hail, and then to a settled cold rain." For five hours that day, Washington had been outdoors on horseback, inspecting his property. The next day he complained of a sore throat, and that night he became deeply ill. Doctors, heeding the medical tenets of the day, extracted blood from him and performed other practices that did him more harm than good. Yet Washington never complained of the pain. He calmly gave orders to servants and apologized for the trouble he was causing everyone. Around midnight he breathed his last breath.

Washington's funeral was not the simple ceremony he had requested. Thousands of mourners attended the services, a band played, and a ship anchored in the Potomac fired a grand salute. He was buried in the family tomb at Mount Vernon. His forty-two page will, which he had personally drafted in 1799, left his estate, which was valued at $500,000, to Martha for use during her lifetime, after which it would pass to his nephew, Bushrod Washington. He freed his personal slave, William, with a $30 grant of money to be paid him every year for life, and he ordered the rest of his slaves freed upon Martha's death. Washington left some of his wealth to a school for poor and orphaned children and other amounts to support the construction of a national university in Washington, D.C. His two grandchildren received large, choice tracts of farmland in Virginia, and he left his numerous friends gifts drawn from his household and personal effects. Washington's five nephews inherited his five swords along with the instructions to never "unsheath them for the purpose of shedding blood, except it be for self defence, or in defence of their Country and its rights; and in the latter case, to keep them unsheathed, and prefer falling with them in their hands, to the relinquishment thereof."

Citation Information

Consulting Editor

Stephen Knott

Professor Knott is an Associate Professor in the National Security Decision Making Department at the United States Naval War College. Prior to joining the War College faculty, he served as project director for the Ronald Reagan and Edward M. Kennedy Oral History Projects at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. His writings include:

The Reagan Years (Facts on File, 2005)

Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth (University Press of Kansas, 2002)