N THE 4TH of March, 1797, Washington went to the inauguration of his successor as President of the United States. The Federal Government was sitting in Philadelphia at that time and Congress held sessions in the courthouse on the corner of Sixth and Chestnut Streets.
At the appointed hour Washington entered the hall followed by John Adams, who was to take the oath of office. When they were seated Washington arose and introduced Mr. Adams to the audience, and then proceeded to read in a firm clear voice his brief valedictory--not his great "Farewell Address," for that had already been published. A lady who sat on "the front bench," "immediately in front" of Washington describes the scene in these words:
"There was a narrow passage from the door of entrance to the room. General Washington stopped at the end to let Mr. Adams pass to the chair. The latter always wore a full suit of bright drab, with loose cuffs to his coat. General Washington's dress was a full suit of black. His military hat had the black cockade. There stood the 'Father of his Country' acknowledged by nations the first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen. No marshals with gold-coloured scarfs attended him; there was no cheering, no noise; the most profound silence greeted him as if the great assembly desired to hear him breathe. Mr. Adams covered his face with both his hands; the sleeves of his coat and his hands were covered with tears. Every now and then there was a suppressed sob. I cannot describe Washington's appearance as I felt it--perfectly composed and self-possessed till the close of his address. Then when strong, nervous sobs broke loose, when tears covered the faces, then the great man was shaken. I never took my eyes from his face. Large drops came from his eyes. He looked as if his heart was with them, and would be to the end."
On Washington's retirement from the Presidency one of his first employments was to arrange his papers and letters. Then on returning to his home the venerable master found many things to repair. His landed estate comprised eight thousand acres, and was divided into farms, with enclosures and farm-buildings. And now with body and mind alike sound and vigorous, he bent his energies to directing the improvements that marked his last days at Mount Vernon.
In his earlier as well as in later life, his tour of the farms would average from eight to twelve or fourteen miles a day. He rode upon his farms entirely unattended, opening his gates, pulling down and putting up his fences as he passed, visiting his labourers at their work, inspecting all the operations of his extensive establishment with a careful eye, directing useful improvements and superintending them in their progress.
He usually rode at a moderate pace in passing through his fields. But when behind time this most punctual of men would display the horsemanship of his earlier days, and a hard gallop would bring him up to time so that the sound of his horse's hoofs and the first dinner bell would be heard together at a quarter before three.
A story is told that one day an elderly stranger meeting a Revolutionary worthy out hunting, a long-tried and valued friend of the chief, accosted him, and asked whether Washington was to be found at the mansion house, or whether he was off riding over his estate. The friend answered that he was visiting his farms, and directed the stranger the road to take, adding, "You will meet, sir, with an old gentleman riding alone in plain drab clothes, a broad- brimmed white hat, a hickory switch in his hand, and carrying an umbrella with a long staff, which is attached to his saddle-bow-- that person, sir, is General Washington."
Precisely at a quarter before three the industrious farmer returned, dressed, and dined at three o'clock. At this meal he ate heartily, but was not particular in his diet with the exception of fish, of which he was excessively fond. Touching his liking for fish, and illustrative of his practical economy and abhorrence of waste and extravagance, an anecdote is told of the time he was President and living in Philadelphia. It happened that a single shad had been caught in the Delaware, and brought to the city market. His steward, Sam Fraunces, pounced upon the fish with the speed of an osprey, delighted that he had secured a delicacy agreeable to the palate of his chief, and careless of the expense, for which the President had often rebuked him.
When the fish was served Washington suspected the steward had forgotten his order about expenditure for the table and said to Fraunces, who stood at his post at the sideboard, "What fish is this?" "A shad, sir, a very fine shad," the steward answered. "I know your excellency is particularly fond of this kind of fish, and was so fortunate as to procure this one--the only one in market, sir, the first of the season." "The price, sir, the price?" asked Washington sternly. "Three--three dollars," stammered the conscience-stricken steward. "Take it away," thundered the chief, "take it away, sir! It shall never be said that my table set such an example of luxury and extravagance." Poor Fraunces tremblingly did as he was told, and the first shad of the season was carried away untouched to be speedily discussed in the servants' dining room.
Although the Farmer of Mount Vernon was much retired from the business world, he was by no means inattentive to the progress of public affairs. When the post bag arrived, he would select his letters and lay them aside for reading in the seclusion of his library. The newspapers he would peruse while taking his single cup of tea (his only supper) and read aloud passages of peculiar interest, remarking the matter as he went along. He read with distinctness and precision. These evenings with his family always ended at precisely nine o'clock, when he bade everyone good night and retired to rest, to rise again at four and renew the same routine of labour and enjoyment.
Washington's last days, like those that preceded them in the course of a long and well-spent life, were devoted to constant and careful employment. His correspondence both at home and abroad was immense. Yet no letter was unanswered. One of the best-bred men of his time, Washington deemed it a grave offence against the rules of good manners and propriety to leave letters unanswered. He wrote with great facility, and it would be a difficult matter to find another who had written so much, who had written so well. General Harry Lee once observed to him, "We are amazed, sir, at the vast amount of work you get through." Washington answered, "Sir, I rise at four o'clock, and a great deal of my work is done while others sleep."
He was the most punctual of men, as we said. To this admirable quality of rising at four and retiring to rest at nine at all seasons, this great man owed his ability to accomplish mighty labours during his long and illustrious life. He was punctual in everything and made everyone about him punctual. So careful a man delighted in always having about him a good timekeeper. In Philadelphia, the first President regularly walked up to his watchmaker's to compare his watch with the regulator. At Mount Vernon the active yet punctual farmer invariably consulted the dial when returning from his morning ride, and before entering his house.
The affairs of the household took order from the master's accurate and methodical arrangement of time. Even the fisherman on the river watched for the cook's signal when to pull in shore and deliver his catch in time for dinner.
Among the picturesque objects on the Potomac, to be seen from the eastern portion of the mansion house, was the light canoe of the house's fisher. Father Jack was an African, an hundred years of age, and although enfeebled in body by weight of years, his mind possessed uncommon vigour. And he would tell of days long past when, under African suns, he was made captive, and of the terrible battle in which his royal sire was slain, the village burned, and himself sent to the slave ship.
Father Jack had in a considerable degree a leading quality of his race--somnolency. Many an hour could the family of Washington see the canoe fastened to a stake, with the old fisherman bent nearly double enjoying a nap, which was only disturbed by the jerking of the white perch caught on his hook. But, as we just said, the domestic duties of Mount Vernon were governed by clock time, and the slumbers of fisher Jack might occasion inconvenience, for the cook required the fish at a certain hour, so that they might be served smoking hot precisely at three. At times he would go to the river bank and make the accustomed signals, and meet with no response. The old fisherman would be quietly reposing in his canoe, rocked by the gentle undulations of the stream, and dreaming, no doubt, of events "long time ago." The importunate master of the kitchen, grown ferocious by delay, would now rush up and down the water's edge, and, by dint of loud shouting, cause the canoe to turn its prow to the shore. Father Jack, indignant at its being supposed he was asleep at his post, would rate those present on his landing, "What you all meek such a debil of a noise for, hey? I wa'nt sleep, only noddin'."
The establishment of Mount Vernon employed a perfect army of domestics; yet to each one was assigned special duties, and from each one strict performance was required. There was no confusion where there was order, and the affairs of this estate, embracing thousands of acres and hundreds of dependents, were conducted with as much ease, method and regularity as the affairs of a homestead of average size.
Mrs. Washington was an accomplished house-wife of the olden time, and she gave constant attention to all matters of her household, and by her skill and management greatly contributed to the comfort and entertainment of the guests who enjoyed the hospitality of her home.
The best charities of life were gathered round Washington in the last days at Mount Vernon. The love and veneration of a whole people for his illustrious services, his generous and untiring labours in the cause of public utility; his kindly demeanour to his family circle, his friends, and numerous dependents; his courteous and cordial hospitality to his guests, many of them strangers from far distant lands; these charities, all of which sprang from the heart, were the ornament of his declining years and granted the most sublime scene in nature, when human greatness reposes upon human happiness.
On the morning of the 17th of December, 1799, the General was engaged in making some improvements in the front of Mount Vernon. As was usual with him, he carried his own compass, noted his observations, and marked out the ground. The day became rainy, with sleet, and the improver remained so long exposed to the inclemency of the weather as to be considerably wetted before his return to the house. About one o'clock he was seized with chilliness and nausea, but having changed his clothes he sat down to his indoor work. At night, on joining his family circle, he complained of a slight indisposition. Upon the night of the following day, having borne acute suffering with composure and fortitude, he died.