Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Final Struggle between George Washington and the Grim King: Washington's Attitude toward Death and an Afterlife

Academic journal article The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

The Final Struggle between George Washington and the Grim King: Washington's Attitude toward Death and an Afterlife

Article excerpt

THE final year of the eighteenth century witnessed the deaths of Virginia's two most popular and beloved heroes-Patrick Henry and George Washington. Patrick Henry, suffering from severe intestinal blockage, met his death in June with the courage of a convinced Christian. More than a decade earlier he had consoled his sister on the death of her husband: "This is one of the trying scenes, in which the Christian is eminently superior to all others and finds a refuge that no misfortunes can take away." Confronting his own imminent demise, Henry used his confidence in boldly facing death as a means of testifying to his skeptical physician about the truth of the Christian religion. He believed he would go to a place where "sorrow never enters." According to his second wife's account of his final scene, "He met death with firmness and in full confidence that through the merits of a bleeding saviour that his sins would be pardoned."1

Six months later George Washington died an even more painful death and faced his ordeal with a courage every bit equal to that demonstrated by Patrick Henry. Yet, unlike Henry, Washington did not draw his courage from a Christian concept of redemption and the hope of eternal bliss through the sacrifice of Christ. A thorough examination of Washington's religious views, which have been hotly debated,2 is beyond the scope of this essay, but a careful examination of the way he faced death and what he wrote to others at times of their great personal grief sheds light on Washington's attitude toward death and an afterlife and gives insight into his character.

George Washington's brief fatal illness in December of 1799 came suddenly and with little warning, but it was not unexpected. Although it would be incorrect to aver, as one historian has, that Washington was "haunted by premonitions of death,"3 there is no question that it was often on his mind, especially in the last years of his life and when he was not involved in important activities. He was acutely aware that he was from a short-lived family, that he was approaching the biblical life span of three score and ten, that he was worn out from a lifetime of service, that his remaining days could "not be many," and that his "glass was almost run."4 A constant image in his later correspondence is that of gently drifting down the stream of life.5 When his sole surviving brother, Charles, died earlier in 1799, Washington wrote, "I was the first, and am now the last, of my fathers Children by the second marriage who remain. when I shall be called upon to follow them, is known only to the giver of life. When the summons comes I shall endeavour to obey it with a good grace."6

It was extremely important to Washington to meet death with "good grace." For much of Washington's adult life, he was in one sense or another playing a role-the classical republican general, the patriot king, the father of his country. The desire for the approbation of the people-properly earned through disinterested service for the common good-lay very close to the core of Washington's being. He hoped that in facing death he would do nothing to sully the reputation he had spent a lifetime building.7

Certainly, Washington's courage in the face of the prospect of death, stoical in nature from whatever source it was drawn, was one of the trademarks of his life. At the age of seventeen, young Washington owned an outline in English of the principal Dialogues of Seneca the Younger. One of the chapter headings was, "The Contempt of Death makes all the Miseries of Life Easy to Us." Seneca also wrote, "He is the brave man . . . that can look death in the face without trouble or surprise."8 In classical stoicism, the true stoic may fall victim to circumstances beyond his control, suffer and perhaps die, but his superior control over his passions calls forth admiration and leads to a reaffirmation of the dignity of man.

Washington displayed a stoic's contempt for death, an attitude that awed his contemporaries. …

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