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Getting to Know George
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Getting to Know George is a weekly series leading to the opening of the
Acts of Congress exhibit at the Eisenhower Presidential Library on April 23!
George Washington's personal copy of the Laws of the United States, First Session 1789, known as the Acts of Congress will be on display at the 13 Presidential Libraries.
For tour details, please visit www.archives.gov/exhibits/acts-of-congress

"There is a Destiny which has the control of our actions, not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature." - GW

Did George Washington leave public life for good when he retired?

There had been tears and poignant goodbyes in Philadelphia on March 4, 1797, as the Washingtons departed on their six-day journey home. Though anxious to resume his gentleman-farmer life at Mount Vernon, it would not be an easy or clean transition for Washington. As the central figure on the national stage for more than twenty years, it was unrealistic to expect that he could completely close the door to political life. As the first "former" president, he was now presented with a whole host of new "firsts." Worried about the country without him at the helm -- and unknown to President Adams -- he began a confidential correspondence with Adams' advisors. Disintegrating relations between the Adams Administration and the corrupt French Revolutionary government were inching the United States toward war. Without Washington's prior knowledge or consent, President Adams appointed him commander of a provisional army to be activated in the event of a French invasion. It was not long before the inevitable politics, inflated egos, and organizational snafus cooled Washington's enthusiasm for the job. Feeling free to express his political opinions, Washington became uncharacteristically sarcastic and biting in his criticism of Jefferson's Democratic Republicans. The unintended publication of a private, and scathing, letter from Jefferson to Florentine Philip Mazzei, harshly critical of the Washington Administration, effectively ended the relationship between the fellow founders. Determined to prevent Democratic-Republicans inroads in the elections of 1799, Washington lobbied friends and fellow Federalists to run for the Virginia state legislature and for Congressional seats.


What were Washington's dreams for his retirement?

For the third time in his adult life, George Washington prepared to resume his great passion in life -- farming. Even in retirement, Washington was a man wedded to his routines, rising at dawn and retiring at dark. Each morning, he worked in his study before his breakfast of three fried mush cakes, dripping in honey and butter, and three cups of tea without cream. At seven o'clock, he began his day-long inspection of Mount Vernon's farms, grist mill, and fishery. Due to Washington's extended absences over the years, the soil had become depleted and infertile, which he planned to remedy with modern practices like crop rotation. In addition to substantial acreages of corn, wheat, and rye, there were fields of vegetables and orchards of fruit trees to supply Mount Vernon. A new estate manager, a Scotsman by the name of James Anderson, was hired in the spring of 1797. He recommended utilizing some of the corn and rye crop to produce whiskey. In two years time, the new distillery was producing 11,000 gallons a year, making Washington the biggest producer of whiskey in the United States. In addition to improving his farms and repairing and updating his home, Washington began the massive task of organizing his voluminous papers for an archive he planned to construct at Mount Vernon. When some hinted that he consider running for the presidency in 1800 to save the country from ruin by the Democratic Republicans, he dismissed it out of hand.


What was life like for the Washington family during these years?

To the outside world, life at Mount Vernon was an oasis of wealth, ease, and Southern charm. The truth was far different as George Washington was under constant financial stress. The plantation was never a profitable enterprise, and Washington found it difficult -- if not impossible -- to live within his means. Returning home after an eight-year absence, he found his home, its furnishings, and the outbuildings in dire need of renovation and repair. Within three weeks, he had assembled an army of craftsmen, filling Mount Vernon with dust, paint fumes, and the deafening staccato of hammers. He complained that the renovations were costing him as much as a completely new house! Granddaughter Nelly, beloved by all who met the dark-eyed, dark-haired beauty, was a joy in his life. On the other hand, Washy, her younger brother, was a source of constant frustration for his grandfather. When Washy dropped out of Princeton, a hopeful Washington enrolled him in St. John's College in Annapolis. In no time, however, Washy was back at home, proving himself as frivolous and irresponsible as his father before him. When Betty Lewis, Washington's sister, died, he invited her son Lawrence, a childless widower, to live at Mount Vernon to assist with social obligations and Washington's affairs. In time, Lawrence and Nelly would marry and produce eight children. (Eventually there would be twenty Washington great-grandchildren.)


What was Washington's last year like?

George Washington had made it known that he planned to welcome in the new century. Ironically, he would fall short of his goal by a mere 18 days. George and Martha marked their 40th wedding anniversary on January 6, 1799. On Washington's 67th birthday, February 22, Nelly and Lawrence married. It was a joyous affair, made even happier by the birth of the George and Martha's first great-grandchild, Frances Parke Lewis, in late November. Charles, Washington's younger, and last remaining brother, died on September 20, and Martha's last sibling, a younger sister, died in November. Washington felt his health slowly declining; his eyesight was deteriorating, and his deafness more pronounced. Nonetheless, always the methodical master of systems, he set out to completely reorganize Mount Vernon's operations. He planned to oversee three of the five farms himself and to lease out the other two, plus the fishery, distillery, and mine. In July, he drafted a very detailed new will, which would free all of his slaves upon his and Martha's deaths.


How did George Washington die?

The morning of December 12, 1799, Washington began his day as usual. He continued his farm inspections even as it began to snow. Riding home through hail and freezing rain, he sat down to dinner, soaked in wet clothes so as not to delay supper for everyone. The next day, complaining of a sore throat, he walked his property near the river, laying out the design for a new fishpond and gravel walk. Washington stayed up late that night, working in his study, despite growing hoarseness and congestion. Awakening Martha in the middle of the night, he told her he did not feel well, but insisted he would be fine until morning. The last day of his life, December 14, three doctors were summoned to attend to him. Bloodletting, an accepted medical therapy at the time, was administered throughout the day; an estimated five pints of blood drained from his body. Washington's struggle to breathe became ever more labored. Despite his agony, he did not complain, but rather, with characteristic grace and dignity, endured his now-inevitable death. A stoic Martha never left her place at the foot of his bed. Word of George Washington's death was announced with the pealing of church bells in every American city and town. Americans everywhere stopped what they were doing as a sign of respect and to fully register the magnitude of their loss. Following his funeral and burial at Mount Vernon on December 18, a funeral oration was held in Philadelphia, where General Henry Lee eulogized Washington thus, "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." George Washington had, indeed, earned the title of "Indispensable Man."  


This article concludes the "Getting to Know George" Series. We hope you enjoyed this series and learned a few things along the way.  

From the Staff at Mount Vernon:


Did George Washington free his slaves?

Yes. Washington's attitude toward slavery gradually changed as he grew older and especially as he fought for liberty in the American Revolution. In his will, he freed those slaves belonging to him (about 124) and his estate paid for the care of former Mount Vernon slaves for decades after his death. At least nine early presidents owned slaves, but only one -- Washington -- freed all his slaves. The remaining slaves at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Mrs. Washington's first husband and were known as dower slaves. By law, Washington had no legal rights to free those individuals. They were eventually inherited by Mrs. Washington's descendants upon her death in 1802. 

Explore everything George Washington at the Mount Vernon website at www.mountvernon.org
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