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Tobias Lear's Letter to His Mother

December 16, 1799

Mount Vernon
December 16, 1799

My dear & honored Mother,

It is a long time since I wrote to you; but I hope you will not impute it to a want of duty of affection.

Before this reaches you, the information of the death of the greatest and best of men will have got to Portsmouth.  Loss so great and so sudden can hardly be realized.  It appears to me yet as a dream.  Nothing but the duty which I owe to his memory, and the constant call upon me to prepare everything to commit his remains to the Tomb, keeps me from yielding to immoderate grief.  I will, in the best manner I am able, give you a circumstantial account of the illness and death of my revered & beloved friend.  On Thursday last the weather was very disagreeable, a constant fall of rain, snow & hail with a high wind.  Before it came on the General had rode out to visit his farms as usual, and as he never regarded the weather, he kept out from about ten till three o’clock.  When he came in I observed that he was very wet about the hair &  neck, and told him that I was afraid he would take cold; he said there was no danger, for his great coat had kept him from getting wet.  On Friday he complained of a sore throat; but considering it as a trifling matter he took no measures to remove it; for he was always averse to nursing himself for any slight complaint.  About 3 o’clock on Saturday morning he became ill, and at daylight Mrs. Washington sent for me to come to him, which I did, and immediately dispatched a servant to Alexandria for Doctor Craik, as I found he could scarcely speak, and breathed with difficulty, his complaint being an inflammatory sore throat, usually called the Quincy.  Doctor Craik finding his situation alarming – we sent for Doctor Dick, of Alexa., and Doctor Brown of Port Tobacco, who came with all possible dispatch.  Every aid that medicine could give was administered; but without the desired effect; and between ten and eleven o’clock at night, he resigned his breath into the hand that gave it.  His distress, through the day, was extreme; but not a groan or a complaint escaped him.  With the most perfect resignation, and in full possession of his reason to the last moment he gave up his life.  I never quitted him through the whole scene for a moment, and if anything can console me for his loss, it is the belief that I gave ease to his last moments, by holding him up at times and helping him to move when he was in great distress to get breath, which caused him to be constantly changing his position.  Although he could speak but very seldom, & that in a manner scarcely to be understood, & with extreme pain; yet the kind and grateful looks which he gave me, when endeavoring to alleviate his pain by supporting or moving him, afforded me a heartfelt satisfaction, under the severe affliction which I felt for him.  He was fully sensible of his approaching dissolution for some time before we could persuade ourselves but that there was a hope left, and he frequently told the physicians that their efforts would be in vain.  To the last moment he wished to be useful – as often as he could speak he would mention to me something which he wished to have done.  And his last words, about a quarter of an hour before he died, were to me thus – “My dear Friend I am just about to change my scene, y breath can continue but a few moments, you will have me decently interred and do not let my body be put into the Tomb in less than two days after my death.”  He then felt his own pulse – I took his hand between mine – the pulse ceased, and he was launched into happier scenes.  How I supported it through the afflicting scenes of the day I cannot tell; but I never felt more collected in my life – a constant wish to relieve his distress occupied all my mind; but when he was no more my heart sank within me, and nothing but the reflection that I had my duties committed to me, which were indispensable, could have raised me from a torpid grief. 

The pious resignation and virtuous fortitude of Mrs. Washington in this distressing scene is beyond description.  She never quitted the room during the whole time, and when the last breath was dawn, she asked me with a collected countenance and a firm voice – “Is he gone” – I could not speak, but held up my hand as a signal that he was no more.  With the same voice she observed – “it is now all over, I have no more trials to pass through in this life, I shall soon follow him, and rejoice when the moment arrives.”  Since that time she has preserved the same pious fortitude.  It afflicts me to see her.  The world now appears to be no longer desirable to her – and yet she yields not to that grief which would be softened by tears.

This Wednesday, at twelve o’clock the Remains will be deposited in the Tomb – and America will moan the loss of the first and greatest of men.

I have written this letter late in the night, and in the present situation of everything here, I hardly know how I have expressed it.  I beg that no part of it therefore may be published; for I presume that everything which relates to this afflicting event will be eagerly sought after by the public.  I am, my dear & honored Mother, Your most dutiful & affectionate son –

Tobias Lear