Magazine April 6, 2020, Issue

George Washington’s Twilight Years

From the cover of Washington’s End (Scribner)
Washington’s End: The Final Years and Forgotten Struggle, by Jonathan Horn (Scribner, 352 pp., $30)

Just before he took the oath of office as president of the United States, John Adams glanced at the “serene and unclouded” expression on the face of his predecessor, George Washington, and imagined him thinking: “Ay! I am fairly out and you fairly in! See which of us will be happiest.”

Washington was indeed happy to escape Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States, and return to Mount Vernon, his large but long-neglected estate on the banks of the Potomac. There, in Adams’s words, he hoped to “plunge into agriculture and ride away his reflections.”

Washington wasted no time in repairing and improving his house, gardens, and fields, but his retirement was troubled. The war between Britain and France that had divided his cabinet between Francophile Republicans and Anglophile Federalists was still threatening American security, and few believed that the notably unmartial Adams was up to the job of commander in chief. A dozen miles north of Mount Vernon, the future capital that was to bear Washington’s name was being built in fits and starts, as investors proved reluctant to stake their wealth on a “city” that looked more like an untamed forest. And surrounding his mansion were the dwellings of more than 300 slaves, whose continued bondage was a constant rebuke to the ideals he had sacrificed so much to advance.

These challenges were great enough. But Washington had also to deal with a problem unique to his position. Just as none before him had ever served as the elected head of state of a republic, so nobody had ever voluntarily retired from such an office. What, precisely, was an ex-president to do?

That dilemma is thoughtfully explored by Jonathan Horn in Washington’s End, a poignant look at the father of his country in the twilight of his life. Horn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush (the 43rd president often referred to Washington as “the first George Dubya”), has a fluid, pleasing style, with stately cadences that suit his subject.

Horn reminds us that the partisan heat that sometimes warps our political discourse is nothing new. While vice president, Jefferson lamented, “Men who have been intimate all their lives cross the streets to avoid meeting, and turn their heads another way, lest they should be obliged to touch their hat.” This, while true, was a little rich coming from Jefferson, the head of the nation’s first opposition party, and the sponsor of often-scurrilous partisan journalism. Washington, the target of much of that journalism, responded in turn. About the Jeffersonians he raged: “Let that party set up a broomstick — and call it a true Son of Liberty, a Democrat, or give it any other epithet that will suit their purpose — and it will command their votes in toto!”

Of the original presidential triumvirate, Washington had by far the briefest time in retirement. John Adams had a quarter of a century to potter around his Massachusetts home and contemplate his legacy; Thomas Jefferson had more than 17 years on his Virginia mountaintop. Washington, on the other hand, lived for only two years and nine months after leaving office. Of all American presidents, only James K. Polk and Chester A. Arthur had shorter retirements.

Short it may have been, but it was certainly busy. His “plunge into agriculture” kept him in the saddle for hours each day, and his slaves and overseers found it hard to keep up. Patience was not among his virtues: “I never require much time to execute any measure after I have resolved upon it.”

But this impressive display of strength and endurance could not undo the passage of time. As Horn makes clear, Washington was old for his age; his hearing and memory had begun to fail, and his primitive dentures were a constant torment. His political enemies had begun to whisper about his infirmities while he was still president, and in his retirement the abuse continued in the Republican press. Try as he might to avoid the papers, he always kept up with events. For all his famed emulation of Cincinnatus, the Roman general who surrendered high office and returned to his plow, Washington sometimes missed the levers of power.

Not that he was lonely. Mount Vernon was, in a way, the first presidential library and museum, and Washington himself was the chief exhibit. Visitors from around the country and around the globe descended on his home in vast numbers, eager for a glimpse of the great man and presuming on his hospitality. Virginia tradition obliged him to feed and house them all, and thus it was with surprise that he noted one evening, “Unless some one pops in, unexpectedly, Mrs. Washington and myself will do what I believe has not been done within the last twenty years by us, that is to set down to dinner by ourselves.”

Relations with France had badly deteriorated since the days of the American Revolution, when the French fleet had played a central role in the defeat of the British and the winning of independence. The French Revolution, which Jefferson had celebrated as the dawn of a new age of European enlightenment, had turned into a bloodbath. The United States repudiated its debt to France, and the government in Paris retaliated with a campaign against American merchant shipping. President Adams resisted the war cries of the more fervent Federalists but authorized a dramatic expansion of the Navy.

The ructions with France were felt at Mount Vernon. Under Federalist pressure, Adams also agreed to establish a new standing army, and (with dubious constitutionality) offered the post of commander in chief to Washington, who — with his customary reluctance — accepted. This was a bitter pill for the insecure Adams, tired as he was of the “fulsome adulation” for his predecessor, but he had no wish to lead men into battle. Luckily, other than a brief journey to Philadelphia for consultations, Washington’s duties never took him away from his desk. The army existed only on paper, and war fever cooled before recruiting began.

Thus, he had time to confront his mortality and consider his legacy. Few things troubled him more than the fate of his slaves, and he had resolved to free them upon his death. Aware that his will would be a testament for the ages as much as a legal instrument for his family, he labored over it with care. The situation was complicated by the fact that more than half of the slaves at Mount Vernon belonged to the estate of Martha’s late husband, and Washington had no power to free them. To make matters worse, many among the two groups of slaves had intermarried, and so emancipation would be followed by family separation. But he was resolved that those he owned outright would enjoy “a destiny different from that in which they were born.” He decreed that his slaves would be freed upon his wife’s death, which was likely to follow soon after his, and that “a regular and permanent fund” would be established for their care and education.

In the end, Mount Vernon was the death of him. After several hours in the saddle on a freezing December day in 1799, Washington developed a sore throat that within hours became serious. His physicians administered the tortures that then passed for medical treatment: bleeding, blistering, and an enema, but to no avail. A case of epiglottitis that today would be easily cured by antibiotics turned out to be a death sentence, and Washington suffocated in his bed. Martha Washington never again slept in their bedroom, living instead in an upstairs room for the 30 months remaining to her.

An air of melancholy hangs over Horn’s tale. When Washington died, the republic that he had led remained a narrow strip of settlement on the Eastern seaboard, and what Jefferson called “the vaunted scene of Europe” remained the principal stage of history. Washington’s retirement fell short of his gauzy vision of living “under the shadow of my own vine and my own fig tree.” The long and fruitful collaboration with his fellow Virginians Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe had collapsed in acrimony. The vexations of foreign affairs, ceaseless political strife, and even the stubbornness of the soil at Mount Vernon robbed him of the serenity of which he had dreamed.

But whatever frustrations he may have had as a farmer, Washington had sown the seeds of a vast American future.

This article appears as “The First Ex-President” in the April 6, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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Michael F. Bishop — Mr. Bishop is a consultant at the National Endowment for the Humanities, a board member of the Abraham Lincoln Institute, and the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and of the International Churchill Society.

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