Washington’s Last Ride

Good morning, it’s Wednesday, December 12, 2018. On this date in 1799, George Washington did what he did on most days since retiring from the presidency: He toured his sprawling estate on horseback to examine and direct Mount Vernon’s myriad farming activities.

It was a Thursday and the weather was nasty. Snow was falling as Gen. Washington began his rounds about 10 a.m. By early afternoon, it turned to sleet and then to a pelting cold rain.

Around 3 in the afternoon, Washington finished his rounds, alighted from his horse and entered the main house. Dinner was served — Southern-style in the mid-afternoon — and Washington, as he did most days, had houseguests. Rather than keep them waiting, he came to dinner in damp clothes, apparently chilled to the bone, even while insisting improbably to aide-de-camp Tobias Lear that his greatcoat had kept him warm.

The meal and conversation took place, but George Washington paid a price for his punctuality and decorum.

The morning after George Washington braved a December storm to ride around his estate — and then entertained dinner guests in damp clothes — the maestro of Mount Vernon awoke with a sore throat. In the days before antibiotics, minor infections could be a source of worry, even danger.

But at 67 years of age, Washington was the same force of nature who’d fought in the French and Indian War as a young man, and in middle age had defeated the British Empire on the battlefield. Which is to say that on Friday, December 13, 1799, he shrugged off his symptoms while outside the storm escalated, covering Northern Virginia in a blanket of wet and heavy snow.

Although he stayed indoors all morning, by late afternoon on Friday, Washington took advantage of a break in the weather to venture outside to a wooded glen between his house and the Potomac River where he marked some trees for cutting. That evening, by the fire, he read aloud from a newspaper, scoffing at one reference to James Monroe and being needled gently in response by Lear, whose politics didn’t align exactly with his boss’s.

On a more serious note, the loyal aide advised Washington to try and treat his sore throat. “You know I never take anything for a cold,” the general replied. “Let it go as it came.”

But this was not to be, as George and Martha Washington would both realize before the sun was up Saturday morning — an ordeal that will be the subject of tomorrow morning’s note.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

%d bloggers like this: