a NewsHour with Jim Lehrer Transcript
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December 14, 1999
George Washington

On December 15, 1799, George Washington died of a throat infection at his home in Mount Vernon. His funeral, which took place there three days later is being reenenacted this weekend on the 200th anniversary.


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Nov. 25, 1997: Reassessing our civic symbols.

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George Washington 1999 Bicentennial site.

Mount Vernon

George Washington

George Washington Papers from the Library of Congress

The Life of George Washington

George Washington RAY SUAREZ: In December of 1799, at age 67, General George Washington still was considered physically strong and in good health, much like the image portrayed today at Mount Vernon by actor Bill Sommerfield. George Washington already had dedicated eight years of his life to lead the Continental Army through the war for independence, and an additional eight years to guide the new nation as its first President. Now retired from public service for nearly three years, General Washington chose to spend most of his days at his beloved Virginia plantation along the Potomac River. The weather on Thursday, December 12, 1799, was a mix of light snow and sleet changing to rain. General Washington spent several hours on horseback supervising the farm work of his many slaves before returning to the house for dinner with wife Martha and his secretary, Tobias Lear. Christopher Sheels was the general's valet at the time, Eleanor Forbes the housekeeper.

Reenacting his death and funeral

A historical interpretation of their characters was provided by Dale Guy and Katie Pohlman.

George Washington "ELEANOR FORBES", The Housekeeper: First snow, then to hail, then to rain, quite wet. When he returned he knew only Mrs. Washington and Mr. Lear was joining him, so he did not change his clothes. He simply sat down to dine.

"CHRISTOPHER SHEELS," The Valet: Mr. Lear noticed the hair was wet and the snow about his coat, and made a suggestion to Master Washington to change. But Master Washington said, "my great coat has protected me."

RAY SUAREZ: The next day, the 13th, despite a sore throat, General Washington rode out again, down the slope of the hill towards the river, to mark some trees for removal.

"ELEANOR FORBES": A hoarseness was to his voice. And that evening, he was attempting to read aloud from the newspaper.

"CHRISTOPHER SHEELS": You should have heard him, sir. You are aware about the debates down in Richmond between Mr. Madison and Mr. Monroe? He was trying to read about that, trying to laugh, and was having difficulty laughing. He finally passed the paper to, you recall, to Mr. Lear to continue.

"ELEANOR FORBES": Yes, and he continued for him.

George Washington RAY SUAREZ: By the morning of December 14, General Washington had developed a fever, his was throat swollen, and he barely able to speak.

"ELEANOR FORBES": Well, the next I know is that I was receiving word to bring the butter, molasses, and vinegar. Mr. Lear wanted to give it to the general to soothe his throat.

"CHRISTOPHER SHEELS": They did send for the best doctors, sir. Dr. Crake was sent for, oh, roughly about daylight. Mrs. Washington insisted on Dr. Brown being fetched from Port Tobacco, Maryland. Dr. Crake did arrive about the tenth hour.

"ELEANOR FORBES": And the bleedings began.

RAY SUAREZ: In an effort to relieve the swelling and rid his body of infection, doctors took a half pint of blood from the general, a process they would repeat three more times during the day, until a third of his blood had been removed.

"ELEANOR FORBES": But the general, he is an advocate of the bleeding, and he felt that it would be most beneficial. And even when Mrs. Washington is protesting, he is asking for more.

RAY SUAREZ: By late afternoon it became apparent to all in the room, including to the general himself, that he was dying. He sent his wife Martha to retrieve two wills he had written, and instructed her to burn the older one.

"ELEANOR FORBES": He was so concerned about others that day. He made sure his accounts were paid. He made sure that all the details for his interment were understood. He asked Christopher to take a seat. He thanked Mr. Lear for helping to move him so he could breathe easier.

"CHRISTOPHER SHEELS": And he thanked the doctors for their attention. And he finally said, "do not bother with me anymore. Let me die in peace."

George Washington RAY SUAREZ: Historical records place George Washington's time of death between 10:00 And 11:00 the night of December 14, 1799. His room at Mount Vernon and the bed where he died have remained virtually intact. Throughout the year, funeral tours have been conducted at Mount Vernon to commemorate the 200th anniversary of George Washington's death. This Saturday, exactly 200 years to the day, some 250 mourners dressed in 18th century attire will reenact the funeral of general Washington, including the procession to the old family crypt where general Washington's body was interred. The service will include a detailed replica of the coffin in which General Washington's body was carried by four uniformed soldiers. Dennis Pogue is associate director for preservation at Mount Vernon.

George Washington DENNIS POGUE: Washington was buried in a pretty elaborate coffin. It was three pieces: A lead liner on the inside, a mahogany coffin, and then an oak outer case. The oak outer case was also covered in black cloth. And those two coffins also had silver plates on them. So they were pretty elaborate pieces.

RAY SUAREZ: The remains of George and Martha Washington and other family members were placed in a larger tomb on the grounds of Mount Vernon in 1831. Following Washington's death, the nation went into a long period of mourning. This illustration, which appeared in newspapers six days later, reflects the glorified image many Americans held for their first President.

A part of his own myth making?

George Washington RAY SUAREZ: Now, four perspectives on the life and legacy of George Washington. With us are NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist and author Haynes Johnson. And joining them tonight is Richard Brookhiser, senior editor of National Review and author, "Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington." Richard Brookhiser, if you look at the signatures along the bottom of the Constitution, if you look at who was who in post revolutionary America, you had a pretty good leadership cast going there. Was America lucky that it got George Washington right then and had him for as long as it did?

George Washington RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, the best indication that it was is that that leadership class felt it was lucky to have him. They recognized his preeminence among them -- some of them with envy, John Adams was admiring, but also envious of the man that served as vice-president. But they knew they were lucky to have him. They knew they were lucky to have a man who not only won the war, and not only got the institutions of government under the Constitution up and running and presided over them -- but a man who after both jobs were done surrendered his power, retired, went back to private life without a second thought -- without any thought that any other option was open to him. He made limited government with liberty a working proposition.

RAY SUAREZ: Haynes Johnson you saw that last illustration in the taped piece -- the literal apotheosis of George Washington, lifting him up to the level of a god.

George Washington HAYNES JOHNSON: I loved it. All the angels taking him off, all these things -- that is the trouble with George Washington we have these pictures in our head that of this sort of sanctified figure, you know. He's a marble man, he's encased in marble. He's the figure on the dollar bill. He's the face on Mount Rushmore, but we don't know him. He was a big man, 6'3 1/2" tall. He could take acorns and crack them in his hands that way. He loved the outdoors, he loved to gamble. He loved to play cards. He loved to dance. I'd like -- it would have been interesting to have seen him in action instead of all this, you say apotheosis, and all the myth making. The cherry tree that he cut down, I can't tell a lie -- or superhuman, he could can throw a silver dollar across the Rapahanic. We made him into a sort of a superman in a wig -- powdered wig. In fact he was a very interesting guy. And he was selfless, strong, poised, confident. We owe our country to him. I don't think there's any question about that.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Beschloss, wasn't George Washington a part character in his own myth making? He was hugely self conscious, understood that he was inventing the presidency.

George Washington MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely -- and also inventing the country. And everything he did was a precedent so that he knew, for instance, that if he seemed too humble that might diminish the power of the presidency or if he seemed too august, that might tempt later presidents to try to be kings. But he also had a little bit of a sense of humor. For instance, there's this contract that he wrote with his gardener 1787, in which he said to the gardener, I expect to you be sober with two exceptions: On Christmas you can get drunk for four days. Easter you can get drunk for two days. It's a little bit different from the image that he projected at the time, that contract was quiet. Another way that he knew -- showed that he knew that his actions would really set policy was at the time he died -- he was a slave owner, he owned hundreds of slaves, he left a will that set them free, and spoke in language that suggested that that slavery was an institution that he, by then, thought was wrong, hoped would end after he died.

RAY SUAREZ: And, Doris, I guess there was no shortage of advice he was getting on how to set the tone, how to -- what to call himself, how to dress.

George Washington DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, that's right. Everything was a precedent. He said at one point I walk on untrodden ground -- even the title of what he was going to be called was up for issue. Jefferson wanted it to be Mr. President, because it was a republic we were creating. But Adams thought Mr. President had no dignity, there was no majesty, you could be a president of a garden club. Washington himself said, I think wanted his mightiness. Then there was some idea about His Excellency, the protector of liberty. But, finally of course, it becomes Mr. President. And then the question was, how available should he be to the public. So, at first there were levies every afternoon, people kept coming in and drinking his liquor and eating his food. He said, I can't deal with this. So they finally convinced him that you got to be open to the public. So again there's a compromise, a couple levies a week, but no refreshments as I understand it. How should he come to his inaugural? People didn't know. Should he be a king? Or is he a democratic king? There was a question, should he wear a suit of gold armor, should he come on gold horses? But finally he had, I think, I understand a brown suit with some gold threads in it. So all of this was creating precedence. And even more importantly how do you deal with Congress, do you veto their bills? How is your relationship with the American public? He had an internal dignity. He knew how to wield power but not to seem to want it. They said he swore but without gusto -- that he was smart, but he wasn't an intellectual. So he combined the democratic side of our nature and the kingly side at the same time.

The legacy he left

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Richard Brookhiser, at the end of his life, did he understand that the republic was secure? I mean, those first couple of years were pretty touch and go sometimes.

George Washington RICHARD BROOKHISER: Well, Thomas Jefferson said he was a man of gloomy apprehensions. And, he was, he had a lot to be gloomy about. Jefferson was one of the things he had to be gloomy about. You know, the American republic was not a sure thing, it was not an easy call. The political passions in the 1790s were far higher and far worse than anything in this decade. The level of party strife, as the party system developed, was worse than it's ever been with exception of the run up to the Civil War. The journalism of the period was far worse than it's ever been in American history. The high points were higher, you had the Federalist Papers appearing in the newspapers. But the low points were far lower. Journalists were simply, corrupt, lying scoundrels. Everyone assumed that that is what professional journalists were. So there were a lot of ways in which the experiment could have run on the rocks, a lot of opportunity for it not to work. There also began four months after his inauguration in 1789, the Bastille falls. So, the French Revolution begins. Europe is sucked into a world war that lasts for 25 years, and there's great danger that America would be sucked into it, too. So, it was a fragile government in a dangerous world. And it's a great tribute to him that he was able to steer it through those difficulties for eight years.

RAY SUAREZ: At the end of George Washington's life, panel, are Americans something different, George Washington in his farewell address referred to his countrymen as, you Americans -- are they no longer just recycled British?

George Washington HAYNES JOHNSON: He thought himself as an American, although he was a British subject. He talked about the Americans when he went back into the woods with - to Braddock's war, and fighting the French and Indian War. So, there was a sense of Americans were a new people and he felt that way. I think in fact after the revolution, and what Richard just said very well, this country survived through a very shaky period and it was a new country, yes, a new people.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And I think if he came back today he'd be very grieved because his idea was, that Americans would be so thrilled that we had this new country, we had our independence -- that we'd be united, we'd feel enormous affection for our national government and the rest of our citizens. I think it would be very upsetting for him to see political parties caught in strife, the degree to which we're all very fractured. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that especially young kids are not very interested in George Washington these days -- largely because he was a leader so different from the leaders of our own time.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he advised against party. He also advised against entangling alliances, Doris.

George Washington DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think his real fear about the foreign entangling alliances was that it would bring out domestic division at home. I mean, what he's really facing is Hamilton and Jefferson unable even to talk to one another at that point. He gives a talk to them. At one point he said, why can't you tolerate the views of one another? It must have pained him deeply to see these two people who had started the country with him at that point unable to deal with each other. For awhile he couldn't deal with Madison. So I think his real worry was that Jefferson wanted us to get involved in France, that it would bring domestic division at home, and it's such a fragile country at that time. If these parties got aligned to one or another foreign power, it could be the end of our own experiment.

RAY SUAREZ: Richard, I'm sorry, we stepped on you, there.

George Washington RICHARD BROOKHISER: Sure. He also knew that the ultimate responsibility for the success of this republic after he goes, after he leaves public life, after he dies, it has to be up to the American people themselves. In his first farewell address, which was the Circular to the States in 1783, when he surrendered his commission as commander in chief, a very striking sentence. He says "if the people of the United States cannot be completely free and happy, the fault will be entirely their own." It's kind of a shock, reading that is like going over a little speed bump. What he is saying is, I've done all I can but that's all I can do. The rest of it is going to be up to you people. What I am giving you is a pattern and I'm giving you an opportunity. Now take it from here.

HAYNES JOHNSON: What was interesting about Washington, he set examples, you know, he wouldn't take money when he was in the commander of the American forces in the revolution -- wouldn't accept a salary -- went broke with his own money. I mean, he set the example as we've said here, about how to lead the White House, not keep the power in your hands, turning it over to the people. And it was a very factional time, riven with hatreds and jealousies and knifings and all of these things. So, it was a much tougher period.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, he also got to get on a horse and go be out in the head of his own army on his own soil.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Two horses were shot out from under him, bullets supposedly cut his uniform, didn't hit him. That's part of the myth-making, I guess. I don't know.

RICHARD BROOKHISER: Actually, he exposed himself to enemy fire in the French and Indian War, and then again in the Revolution, at the Battle of Princeton. On of his aides when the first volley was fired, Colonel Fitzgerald he pulled his hat over his eyes because he expected to see the commander in chief cut to pieces and was gratified that he wasn't.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, 200 years ago today, the death of George Washington, thank you all, great conversation.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Thank you very much.