CHAPTER XII: THE DEATH OF WASHINGTON

And when disease obstructs the labouring breath,
When the heart sickens and each pulse is death,
Even then Religion shall sustain the just;
Grace their last moments; nor desert their dust.

IF the prayers of millions could have prevailed, Washington would have been immortal on earth. And if fullness of peace, riches, and honours could have rendered that immortality happy, Washington had been blessed indeed. But this world is not the place of true happiness. Though numberless are the satisfactions, which a prudence and virtue like Washington's may enjoy in this world, yet they fall short, infinite degrees, of that pure, unembittered felicity, which the Almighty parent has prepared in heaven for the spirits of the just.

To prepare for this immensity of bliss, is the real errand on which God sent us into the world. Our preparation consists in acquiring those great virtues, purity and love, which alone can make us worthy companions of angels, and fit partakers of their exalted delights. Washington had wisely spent his life in acquiring the immortal virtues. " He had fought the good fight " against his own unreasonable affections. He had glorified God, by exemplifying the charms of virtue to men. He had borne the heat and burden of the day--his great day of duty: and the evening of old age being come, the servant of God must now go to receive his wages. Happy Washington! If crowns and kingdoms could have purchased such peace as shine, such hopes big with immortality, with what begging earnestness would crowns and kingdoms have been offered by the mighty conquerors of the earth, in their dying moments of terror and despair!

On the I4h of December, 1799, (when he wanted but nine weeks and two days of being sixty-eight years old,) he rode out to his mill, three miles distant. The day was raw and rainy. The following night he was attacked with a violent pain and inflammation of the throat. The lances of one of his domestics was employed, but with no advantage. Early in the morning, Dr. Craik, the friend and physician of his youth and age, was sent for. Alarmed at the least appearance of danger threatening a life so dear to him, Dr. Craik advised to call in, immediately, the consulting assistance of his friends, the ingenious and learned Dr. Dick, of Alexandria, and Dr. Brown, of Port Tobacco. They came on the wings of speed. They felt the awfulness of their situation. The greatest of human beings was lying low. A life, of all others the most revered, the most beloved, was at stake. And if human skill could have saved--if the sword of genius, and the buckler of experience could have turned the stroke of death, Washington had still lived. But his hour was come.

It appears, that from the commencement of the attack, he was favored with a presentiment, that he was now laid down to rise no more. He took, however, the medicines that were offered him: but it was principally from a sense of duty.

It has been said that a man's death is generally a copy of his life. It was Washington's case exactly. In his last illness he behaved with the firmness of a soldier, and the resignation of a Christian.

The inflammation in his throat was attended with great pain, which he bore with the fortitude that became him. He was, once or twice, heard to say that, had it pleased God, he should have been glad to die a little easier; but that he doubted not that it was for his good.

Every hour now spread a sadder gloom over the scene. Despair sat on the faces of the physicians; for they saw that their art had failed! The strength of the mighty was departing from him; and death, with his sad harbingers, chills and paleness, was coming on apace.

Mount Vernon, which had long shone the queen of elegant joys, was now about to suffer a sad eclipse! an eclipse, which would soon be mournfully visible, not only through the United States, but throughout the whole world.

Sons and daughters of Columbia, gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father-- around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life. When Joseph the prime minister of Egypt heard that his shepherd father was sick, he hastened up, to see him; and fell on his face, and kissed him, and wept a long while. But Joseph had never received such services from Jacob as you have received from Washington. But we call you not to weep for Washington. We ask you not to view those eyes, now sunk hollow, which formerly darted their lightning flashes against your enemies--nor to feel that heart, now faintly laboring, which so often throbbed with more than mortal joys when he saw his young country- men charging like lions, upon the foes of liberty. No! we call you not to weep, but to rejoice. Washington, who so often conquered himself, is now about to conquer the last enemy.

Silent and sad his physicians sat by his bedside, looking on him as he lay panting for breath. They thought on the past, and the tear swelled in their eyes. He marked it, and, stretching out his hand to them, and shaking his head, said, "O no ! don't! don't!" then with a delightful smile added, " I am dying, gentle- men! but, thank God, I am not afraid to die."

Feeling that the hour of his departure out of this world was at hand, he desired that every body would quit the room. They all went out; and, according to his wish, left him--with his God.

There, by himself, like Moses alone on the top of Pisgah, he seeks the face of God. There, by him- self, standing as on the awful boundary that divides time from eternity, that separates this world from the next, he cannot quit the long frequented haunts of the one, nor launch away into the untried regions of the other, until (in humble imitation of the world's great Redeemer,) he has poured forth, into the bosom of his God, those strong sensations which the solemnity of his situation naturally suggested.

With what angelic fervor did he adore that Almighty Love, which, though inhabiting the heaven of heavens, deigned to wake his sleeping dust-- framed him so fearfully in the womb--nursed him on a tender mother's breast--watched his helpless infancy--guarded his heedless youth--preserved him from the dominion of his passions--inspired him with the love of virtue--led him safely up to man--and, from such low beginnings, advanced him to such unparalleled usefulness and glory among men! These, and ten thousand other precious gifts heaped on him, unasked--many of them long before he had the knowledge to ask--overwhelmed his soul with gratitude unutterable; exalted to infinite heights his ideas of eternal love; and bade him without fear resign his departing spirit into the arms of his Redeemer God, whose mercies are over all his works.

He is now about to leave the great family of man, in which he has so long sojourned! The yearnings of his soul are over his brethren! How fervently does he adore that goodness, which enabled him to be so serviceable to them! that grace, which preserved him from injuring them by violence or fraud! How fervently does he pray, that the unsuffering kingdom of God may come, and that the earth may be filled with the richest fruits of righteousness and peace!

He is now about to leave his country! that dear spot which gave him birth--that dear spot for which he has so long watched and prayed, so long toiled and fought; and whose beloved children he has so often sought to gather, " even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings." He sees them now spread abroad like flocks in goodly pastures; like favoured Israel in the land of promise. He remembers how God, by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, brought their fathers into this good land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and blessed them with the blessings of heaven above, and the earth beneath; with the blessings of liberty and of peace, of religion and of laws, above all other people. He sees that, through the rich mercies of God, they have now the precious opportunity to continue their country the glory of the earth, and a refuge for the poor, and for the persecuted of all lands! The transporting sight of such a cloud of blessings, impending close over the heads of his countrymen, together with the distressing uncertainty whether they will put forth their hands and enjoy them, shakes the parent soul of Washington with feelings too strong for his dying frame! The last tear that he is ever to shed, now steals into his eye-- the last groan that he is ever to heave, is about to issue from his faintly labouring heart.

Feeling that the silver cord of life is loosing, and that his spirit is ready to quit her old companion, the body, he extends himself on his bed--closes his eyes for the last time with his own hands--folds his arms decently on his breast, then breathing out " Father of mercies, take me to thyself,"--he fell asleep

Swift on angel's wings the brightening saint ascended; while voices more than human were warbling through the happy regions, and hymning the great procession towards the gates of heaven. His glorious coming was seen afar off; and myriads of mighty angels hastened forth, with golden harps, to welcome the honoured stranger. High in front of the shouting hosts, were seen the beauteous forms of Franklin, Warren, Mercer, Scammel, and of him who fell at Quebec, with all the virtuous patriots, who, on the side of Columbia, toiled or bled for liberty and truth. But oh! how changed from what they were, when, in their days of flesh, bathed in sweat and blood, they fell at the parent feet of their weeping country! Not the homeliest infant suddenly springing into a soul-enchanting Hebe--not dreary winter suddenly brightening into spring, with all her bloom and fragrance, ravishing the senses, could equal such a glorious change. Oh! where are now their wrinkles and grey hairs ? Where their ghastly wounds and clotted blood ? Their forms are of the stature of angels--their robes like morning clouds streaked with gold--the stars of heaven, like crowns, glitter on their heads--immortal youth, celestial rosy red, sits blooming on their cheeks, while infinite benignity and love beam from their eyes. Such were the forms of thy sons, O Columbia! such the brother band of thy martyred saints, that now poured forth from heaven's wide opening gates, to meet thy Washington; to meet their beloved chief, who, in the days of his mortality had led their embattled squadrons to the war. At sight of him, even these blessed spirits seem to feel new raptures, and to look more dazzlingly bright. In joyous throngs they pour around him--they devour him with their eyes of love--they embrace him in transports of tenderness unutterable; while from their roseate cheeks, tears of joy, such as angels weep, roll down.

All that followed was too much for the over-dazzled eye of imagination. She was seen to return, with the quick panting bosom and looks entranced of a fond mother, near swooning at sudden sight of a dear loved son, deemed lost, but now found, and raised to kingly honours! She was heard passionately to exclaim, with palms and eyes lifted to heaven, " O, who can count the stars of Jacob, or number the fourth part of the blessings of Israel!--Let me die the death of Washington! and may my latter end be like his! "

Let us now return to all that remained of Washington on earth. He had expressly ordered in his will, that he should be buried in a private manner, and without any parade. But this was impossible, for who could stay at home when it was said, " To-day General Washington is to be buried! " On the morning of the I8th, which was fixed on for his funeral, the people poured in by thousands to pay him the last respect, and, as they said, to take their last look. And, while they looked on him, nature stirred that at their hearts, which quickly brought the best blood into their cheeks, and rolled down the tears from their eyes. About two o'clock they bore him to his long home, and buried him in his own family vault, near the banks of the great Potomac. And to this day, often as the ships of war pass that way, they waken up the thunder of their loudest guns, pointed to the spot, as if to tell the sleeping hero, that he is not forgotten in his narrow dwelling.

The news of his death soon reached Philadelphia, where Congress was then in session. A question of importance being on the carpet that day, the house, as usual, was much interested. But soon as it was announced--" General Washington is dead"--an instant stop was put to all business--the tongue of the orator was struck dumb--and a midnight silence en- sued, save when it was interrupted by deepest sighs of the members, as, with drooping foreheads rested on their palms, they sat, each absorbed in mournful cogitation. Presently, as utterly unfit for business, both houses adjourned; and the members retired slow and sad to their lodgings, like men who had suddenly heard of the death of a father.

For several days hardly any thing was done in Congress; hardly any thing thought of but to talk of and to praise the departed Washington. In this patriotic work all parties joined with equal alacrity and earnestness. In this all were federalists, all were republicans. Elegant addresses were exchanged beand all of them replete with genius and gratitude.

Then, by unanimous consent, Congress came to the following resolutions:

1st. That a grand marble monument should be erected at the cite of Washington, under which with per- mission of his lady, the body of the General should be deposited.

2d. That there should be a funeral procession from congress hall to the German Lutheran church, to hear an oration delivered by one of the members of congress.

3d. That the members of congress should wear full mourning during the session.

4th. That it should be recommended to the people of the United States to wear crepe on the left arm, as mourning, for thirty days.

But, thank God, the people of the United States needed not the hint contained in the last resolution. Though they could not all very elegantly speak, yet their actions showed that they all very deeply felt what they owed to Washington. For, in every cite, village, and hamlet, the people were so struck on hearing of his death, that long before they heard of the resolution of congress, they ran together to ease their troubled minds in talking and hearing talk of Washington, and to devise some public mode of testifying their sorrow for his death;. Every where throughout the continent, churches and court houses were hung in black, mourning was put on, processions were made, and sermons preached, while the crowded houses listened with pleasure to the praises of Washington, or sighed and wept when they heard of his toils and battles for his country.


Return to Weems' Page

Return to Home