Post-presidency of George Washington

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

Gilbert Stuart 1797
President of the United States
In office
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. 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 Adam's 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. In January 1801, Martha freed his slaves.[5]

Washington's first memorial was created in Maryland in 1827. In 1831, Washington's cousin Major Lawrence Lewis built a new vault, that Washington had requested 31 years earlier. Washington's body was finally interred in a marble sarcophagus in 1837. After a public outcry, the Washington National Monument Society was formed in 1833, and began a private building of the Washington Monument. The project was abandoned in 1854 due to lack of funding. During the nation's centennial, Congress, under President Ulysses S. Grant, took over the funding and building of the Washington Monument, that was completed in 1884, and formally dedicated in 1885. The Mount Rushmore stone sculpture of Washington's face was completed in 1941. The Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington was completed in 2013.

Return to Mount Vernon 1797-1799[edit]

A View of Mount Vernon With Washington Family On the Terrace
Benjamin Henry Latrobe
July 16, 1796

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.[6] Before his departure, Washington sold and gave away his belongings, including a writing desk that contained love letters from his wife Martha. [7][8] Washington departed Philadelphia on March 9, traveling 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. Upon his return, Washington found his five farms and buildings at Mount Vernon were in ruins. He diligently put to work carpenters to fix the buildings, including the mansion house, while he made efforts to rehabilitate his farmlands. Washington's sister, Betty Lewis, died, and Washington was survived only by his younger brother Charles. Guests clamored to see the legendary General and his wife at Mount Vernon. Washington collected vast paper archives on the Revolutionary War at Mount Vernon, in what would turn out to be a precursor for a "presidential library".[9]

Hostilities with France[edit]

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.[10] French relations were broken when Washington left office in 1797, as the French embassy closed down, only a few days before President John Adams took office.

Upon assuming office, President Adams had to repair the damage caused by Washington's "shattered neutrality policy." [10] Preparation for war between the United States and France took place in 1798 after the XYZ Affair.[11] 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. [12] 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.[13] 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 protested Knox as second in command, Adams demurred to Washington and appointed Hamilton instead of Knox, who refused to take his commission as 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 Adam's diplomacy.[3]

Abolition will[edit]

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.[14] 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. Sometime during the summer of 1799, Washington had a frightening dream, where he and his wife were sitting on their portico when an angel came down from heaven and whispered in Martha's ear. Immediately Martha turned pale, disappeared, and then Washington woke up. Afterward, Washington took this as an omen of his immediate death, and he took upon himself to make a new will, that would solve his dilemma over slavery once and for all.[8][4][15]

Washington's new will stipulated that all the 124 slaves he owned at the time of his death 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.[15] Washington's elderly valet-shoemaker slave William Lee was freed outright for his “faithful services during the Revolutionary War.”[15] Washington gave Lee a $30 annuity.[16]

Historian John Ferling believed that Washington's will was an act of atonement for the lifetime 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][15] 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. [17] 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[edit]

Washington on his Deathbed
Junius Brutus Stearns 1799

Throughout his remaining days, Washington kept a regular routine which included writing uniformly noted weather changes in his diary. On December 12, 1799, Washington rode a horse over the Mount Vernon acreage surveying the property in cold inclement weather. The following day, December 13, he rode out again, to mark trees to be pruned, and recorded that the temperature had dropped and there was frost. 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.[18] 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.[19] 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[20] 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".[21] More recent scholarship has concluded that Washington most probably died of acute bacterial epiglottitis.[19]

Funeral and entombment[edit]

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.[22] The funeral started at 3:00 PM, when a schooner moored in the Potomac began firing its guns every minute.[22] 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. Elisa Dick attended the funeral and was in charge directing all of the Masonic rituals.[22] 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. [23] 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. [24] Early visitors of his vault complained of poor conditions and neglect, and the inability to identify Washington's coffin. [24]

Philadelphia memorial service[edit]

On December 19, 1799, Congressman John Marshall formally announced to the House of Representatives that Washington had died at Mount Vernon. On December 23, Marshal spoke before Congress and initiated a process, that would become the groundworks for an organized federal state funeral.[23] 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."[25] 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.. [25]

Maryland Monument 1827[edit]

Maryland's Washington Monument, in what is now inside the Washington Monument State Park, four miles (6.4 km) east of Boonsboro, was the first monument to be completed to honor George Washington, America's first President under the U.S. Constitution.[26] The monument, a dry-laid stone tower, sits near the summit of South Mountain's Monument Knob, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.[26] The park is managed by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.[27] Town citizens began construction on the tower July 4, 1827, the tower stood at 15 feet (4.6 m) high on a base 54 feet (16 m) in circumference. Workmen later returned to complete the tower to a height of 30 feet (9.1 m).[28]

New vault 1831[edit]

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.[29] 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 stone coping.[30]

Sarcophagus 1837[edit]

In 1837 a sarcophagus made by John Struthers, for Washington, and his remains and the original lead casket, were placed inside, covered, and sealed on October 7, 1837. 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. 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.[30]

Equestrian statue 1860[edit]

In 1853, Congress had commissioned the equestrian statue of Lieutenant General George Washington. It was created by artist Clark Mills, modeled and cast in bronze, at a cost of $50,000. The statue depicted Washington's victory at Princeton during the Revolutionary War. Mills wanted Washington to be seen personally leading his men, as he had done at Princeton, defeating the British forces. Mills believed that Washington leading his troops ensured the victory over the British. The statue depicts Washington at the battle scene, his horse is startled, while Washington looks sternly at his British foe. The statue was formally dedicated by President James Buchanan on February 20, 1860. The statue was placed at Washington Circle Park in Washington D.C. Mills' statue is said to be the most lifelike of Washington in existence.[31] One year, one month, and twenty-three days later, after its dedication, the nation that Washington created, and feared could break up over slavery, plunged into a devastating Civil War, between the North and South, with Virginia, Washington's home state, joined to the Confederacy.

Washington monument 1885[edit]

Washington Monument

The Federal City (Washington D.C.), during Washington's lifetime, was originally designed for the place of Washington's memorial. Architect Pierre L'Enfant had specifically set apart land space for a monument to Washington, southwest of the Capital and the White House. The city was completed in 1800 and incorporated officially taking on Washington's name. After Washington's death in December 1799, Congress made no appropriations for Washington's marble monument, although it had pledged to do so. For three decades, funding still had not been granted by Congress for Washington's memorial. This created a public outcry and upset many who believed it was time to honor the first President of the United States, and in 1833 the private Washington National Monument Society was formed. The Society solicited funding from private donors and set out to build the monument, without Congressional funding. In 1845, the Society chose Robert Mills's design, an expensive, lavish Egyptian obelisk, 600 feet tall, that would contain thirty 100-foot base columns.[32]

Work began on the monument on July 4, 1848. An 80-square-foot pyramid underground foundation was built followed by 55-feet 1.5-inch marble base. By 1854, the tower had reached 156 feet above the ground, however, due to lack of funding, further construction was stopped. Throughout the American Civil War, the memorial stood incomplete, while Congress for another decade refused to take over the project. It was not until July 5, 1876, under the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, that Congress finally passed a law to take over the funding and building of Washington's memorial. On December 6, 1884, a 3,300-pound capstone was placed on top of the tower, and Washington's memorial was finally complete. Although design changes took place, the finished memorial stood at 555 feet tall, ten times the width of the base, making it the tallest tower in the world. The thirty ornate 100-foot base columns were scrapped for aesthetic and cost reasons. The monument was officially dedicated on February 21, 1885,.[32]

On August 23, 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck 95 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. On the memorials observation deck, visitors were tossed around from the shaking, while falling mortar and stone debris caused minor injuries. No one was seriously hurt and all safely existed from inside the monument. However, the memorial and park were closed to the public due to the earthquake. Thirty-two months later, on March 12, 2014, the memorial was open to visitors again. Repair work allowed visitors to ascend to and stand outside on the observation deck. Elevator issues left visitors and employees stranded, caused to walk down the stairs, and the park was closed to the public indefinitely on August 17, 2016. The park was scheduled to open to the public during the Spring of 2019. [33]

Mount Rushmore 1941[edit]

George Washington
Mount Rushmore

In 1923, historian Doane Robinson had developed an idea to make a gigantic sculpture on the Black Hills of South Dakota. Robinson hired renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum for the job. Robinson was impressed by Borglum's Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain. Borglum searched for a mountain suitable for his project and he found Mount Rushmore, composed of granite, named after a New York attorney Charles E. Rushmore. Four prominent presidents were chosen for the sculptor to bring national recognition, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Washington was chosen to represent a "light for liberty and the birth of the Republic." Washington was believed to upheld rights for the common citizen.[34]

The project began on August 10, 1927[b] and implemented innovative blasting and drilling techniques on a large scale. Lack of funding, however, extended the memorial's creation to 14 years, but in real time, it took 6 1/2 years of difficult and dangerous work to complete the gigantic sculptor. It took 400 men to build the memorial, remarkably, no one was killed in the process. The surface of the stone sculpture was finished to the smooth surface of a concrete sidewalk. The project cost $989,992.32 and was finished in October 1941. $836,000 in federal funding was used while private donations made up the difference. As the first United States President, under the Constitution, Washington's portrait was the first to be sculpted on a grand scale. Honored among presidents, he was chosen to be displayed in front of the other three chosen presidents. Washington was believed to have stood for the cause of liberty during the American Revolution. Washington was held in high esteem, and believed to have stood for holding office with "dignity, prudence, and respect," and was an example for other Presidents to follow. [34]

Washington Presidential Library 2013[edit]

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.[35]

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.[36]


  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. ^ This date was 127 years, 7 months, and 27 days after Washington's death on December 14, 1799.


  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. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 767.
  7. ^ Chernow 2010, p. 769.
  8. ^ a b Abbot 1999.
  9. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 775-777.
  10. ^ a b Akers 2002, p. 27.
  11. ^ Akers 2002, p. 29.
  12. ^ Grizzard 2002, p. 263.
  13. ^ Akers 2002, pp. 29-30.
  14. ^ Ferling 2000, p. 276.
  15. ^ a b c d Smith.
  16. ^ MacLeod.
  17. ^ Ten Facts About Washington & Slavery.
  18. ^ Ferling 2000, p. 296; Cooke 2002, p. 20.
  19. ^ a b Wallenborn 1999.
  20. ^ Marx 1955.
  21. ^ Chernow 2010, pp. 806–807; Lear 1799, p. 257.
  22. ^ a b c Chernow 2010, pp. 809-810.
  23. ^ a b Eliassen.
  24. ^ a b Chernow 2010, p. 810.
  25. ^ a b Chernow 2010, pp. 811-812.
  26. ^ a b "Washington Monument". Maryland's National Register Properties. Maryland Historical Trust. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  27. ^ "Washington Monument State Park". Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  28. ^ "Washington Monument State Park History". Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Archived from the original on December 3, 2013. Retrieved March 16, 2019.
  29. ^ Wineberger 1858, pp. 39-40.
  30. ^ a b Wineberger 1858, pp. 41-47.
  31. ^ Boston to Washington 1876, p. 230.
  32. ^ a b Washington Monument History & Culture 2018.
  33. ^ Corneliussen 2014; Kurzius 2017; 2011 Earthquake.
  34. ^ a b National Park Service Brochure 1965.
  35. ^ National Archives.
  36. ^ Washington Presidential Library.