This post covers the end of his life. How generous was he? What did he do for society just before he died?
These are facts and stories one does not hear about too often because they are personal, and not about national politics or his battles during the Revolutionary War..
George Washington died a fabulously wealthy man. He was also generous in funding schools and universities. His Last Will and Testament, transcribed at various places, opens this large window into his life—a life well lived.
Here’s an incomplete list of the personal side of the first president at the end of it.
- He had two last wills and testaments, but just before he died, he burned one in the fire. Historians don’t know what was in the destroyed will. Here are some facts from the kept will.
- He owned a fair number of slaves, but he did not release them, though he “earnestly wished” (his terms) to do so, because many had intermarried with his wife’s slaves, whom she brought into the marriage. (It is a myth that back then a man could control all of his wife’s dower property, whether human, personal or real. A court would have to approve a deed of sale by taking her aside privately and asking whether she approved of what her husband was planning).
- If any of his slaves who qualify to go free were ill or infirm by reason of age or injury, they were to be well looked after with food and clothing, a kind of retirement system or disability insurance.
- Slaves who qualify to go free and are under twenty-five and who have no parents or who do have parents, but they are unwilling or unable to provide for them, are to be taught to read and write and to learn a trade or occupation.
- His slaves were forbidden to be sold or transported away, which was a relief for them because they formed attachments with their families and friends—and yes, even with their owners. (It is a myth that the owner-slave relationship was always and only harsh and cruel, with one beating after another. Economically, a plantation owner wanted his slaves to work, not resist. How could this happen if antagonism prevailed?)
- His mulatto (a common term back then for half white and half black) “man”—another word for personal groom or valet or in today’s jargon a personal assistant—was to get his freedom immediately upon the president’s decease because William Lee (the personal assistant) had served the president faithfully during the Revolutionary War and during his natural life. In short, they had formed an attachment of mutual respect and endearment.
- William Lee got an annuity of thirty dollars per annum for the rest of his life. This amount was adequate for back then.
- President Washington donated $4,000.00 (twenty shares he held in the bank of Alexandria) to be held in trust fund a “free school” for poor and indigent orphans and others who are too poor to pay their way.
- The president got one hundred shares of one hundred dollars each in the company that was rendering navigable the James River from the Tidewater to the mountains. He bequeathed these shares to the benefit of Liberty Hall Academy, in Rockbridge County, Virginia.
- He also got fifty shares of fifty pounds sterling in a company that was purposed to open the navigation of the Potomac from the Tidewater to Fort Cumberland. He bequeathed these shares to the founding of a university within the boundaries of the District of Columbia.
- Those two investment gifts were done in appreciation for “compensation for any services I could render my Country in its arduous struggle with Great Britain for its Rights” and other honorable reasons.
- The president intended to start a university away from Virginia and the east coast, but in the “central part of the county” to avoid local attachments and state prejudices.
- The education offered at this university had this curriculum and purpose: “the branches of polite literature, in Arts and Sciences, in acquiring knowledge in the principles of Politics & good government; and (as a matter of infinite importance in my judgment) by associating with each other, and forming friendships in juvenile years, be enabled to free themselves in a proper degree from those local prejudices & habitual jealousies which have just been mentioned; and which when carried to excess are never failing sources of disquietude to the public mind; and pregnant of mischievous consequences to this Country, under these impressions so fully dilated [expanded or opened].”
- He gave his papers concerning the civil and military administration of the country to his nephew Bushrod Washington.
- He had sold or leased land in Pennsylvania, New York and Virginia, and the proceeds deriving from them are to be given to his wife Martha.
- The earl of Buchan gave to the president the oak box preserved by William Wallace (yes, that William Wallace) who fought for the freedom of Scotland. The earl instructed him to pass it on, but since it is such a precious gift, he gave it back to the earl of his descendants.
- Why did the earl give a oak box from William Wallace and not another hero? Wallace fought against the British for Scottish independence and at first won (later he lost). Washington also fought against the British for independence.
- He bequeathed his spy glasses he used during the Revolutionary War to Lawrence and Robert Washington. He bequeaths to them his two gold-headed canes with his arms on them.
- He gave his three-volume Bible with notes to Rev. Bryan, now Lord Fairfax.
- He bequeathed a pair finely wrought pistols he took from the enemy in the Revolutionary War, to General Lafayette.
- He gave to his nephews his swords and “cutteaux.”
- His nephew Bushrod attended to Mt. Vernon during the Revolutionary War, so the president gave part of it to him.
- During the Revolutionary War, George Fayette Washington and Lawrence Augustine Washington took care of his affairs during his public service, so they get 3137 acres.
- The president took care of his wife’s grandchildren and bequeathed to them considerable property; and the same goes for his many nieces and nephews.
- He ordered that he should be buried in the brick family vault on his property at Mt. Vernon.
- He did not want a parade or funeral oration at his decease.
President Washington tallied up his stocks and investments and landholdings and concluded they were all worth $530,000. In today’s terms, a modern converter gives these amounts:
Current data is only available till 2015. In 2015, the relative price worth of $530,000.00 from 1799 is:
$10,500,000.00 using the Consumer Price Index
$9,980,000.00 using the GDP deflator
Current data is only available till 2015. In 2015, the relative amount consumers spend worth of $530,000.00 from 1799 is:
Current data is only available till 2015. In 2015, the relative wage or income worth of $530,000.00 from 1799 is:
$189,000,000.00 using the unskilled wage
$450,000,000.00 using the Production Worker Compensation
$346,000,000.00 using the nominal GO? per capita
Current data is only available till 2015. In 2015, the relative output worth of $530,000.00 from 1799 is:
$21,600,000,000.00 using the relative share of GDP
From these facts it is clear that President Washington lived a full and generous life. He had natural leadership ability, and his friends and family—often the harshest critics—fully respected and admired him.
The entire nation admired him. It is now easy (for me at least) to see why, on a personal level: A man of integrity and honor and humility.
King John (George Washington descends from King John)