George Washington - Last years

Eager to return home as soon as possible, Washington quickly got rid of disposable possessions and rented a sloop to ship the sizable remainder to his plantation wharf. On 15 March 1797 his coach drew up in front of Mount Vernon. As he alighted, Washington happily assured himself that he now would experience "more real enjoyment than in all the business with which I have been occupied for upwards of forty years." Such business, he reflected, had been "little more than vanity and vexation."

He presumably overlooked the fact that private life also entailed vexations. Chief among them was the dilapidated situation into which Mount Vernon had fallen and the deteriorating condition of his farms, due to manifest mismanagement. After many months of repair work, his mansion was restored to its former solid and handsome state, but the recon-version of his farms to a profitable status was a problem that he wrestled with, largely unsuccessfully, until his death. A situation that otherwise would have created "debts and difficulties" was alleviated by the sale of lands that Washington had bought for speculative purposes. In July 1799 he estimated that his still unsold lands were worth $488,137 (several millions in present-day currency).

Certainly Washington needed a large outside income. Not only did he support a large household staff and live in the style befitting a Virginia gentleman but Mount Vernon was continually thronged with guests—local friends, former official acquaintances, and strangers who wished to meet America's foremost hero. Washington did not object. Although his days—whatever the weather—were spent riding around and supervising his lands, he welcomed diversionary company at dinner and on into the early evening.

Neither management of his farms nor entertainment of his friends crowded out his interest in affairs of state, which he closely followed, especially the worsening relations with France, which by the late spring of 1799 had turned into a quasi war. His confi-dent expectation that involvement in public affairs would be merely vicarious was shattered when, on 2 July 1799, President Adams appointed him lieutenant general and commander of the newly augmented American army. Consulted about the appointment before it was made, Washington had agreed to accept only on the condition that he would not assume active command unless "it became indispensable by the urgency of circumstances." Otherwise, actual command would be exercised by his former much trusted finance minister, Hamilton, who at Washington's insistence and to Adams' chagrin was appointed a major general and the inspector general of the army. Although Washington dutifully performed his necessary military duties, these were minimal and soon nominal. Adams, jealous of Hamilton and an exponent of naval rather than military preparedness, not only saw to it that the army was only marginally augmented but also began negotiations—in time successful—to end the Franco-American undeclared war.

In the meantime, Lieutenant General Washington continued his characteristically calm schedule at Mount Vernon. He also tidied up his affairs by drawing up a will that left the bulk of his estate to his wife, Martha, "for the term of her natural life." The provision was long since determined on and unexceptionable. What was exceptionable was the stipulation that upon Martha's death all his slaves be freed. Washington was the sole Virginian founding father to make this humanitarian decision. As the days glided by, Washington's unruffled routine was reflected in his diary, which uniformly noted the weather. On 13 December 1799 his diary recorded that the thermometer had dropped and that there was slight frost. On the same day, the general developed a sore throat. In the middle of the following night he suddenly became acutely ill, his speech almost inaudible and his breathing labored. On 14 December, his condition quickly worsened. The three physicians called to his bedside repeatedly bled and purged him (standard practice of the time). Near midnight, America's first and still foremost hero died.

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