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Digital History ID 2979


Between two and three in the morning, December 13, 1799, George Washington woke his wife, complaining of severe pains. Martha Washington called for an overseer, who inserted a lancet in the former president's arm and drew blood. Over the course of that day and the next, doctors arrived and attempted to ease General Washington's pain by applying blisters, administering purges, and additional bloodletting, altogether removing perhaps four pints of Washington's blood. Medical historians generally agree that Washington needed a tracheotomy (a surgical operation into the air passages), but this was too new a technique to be risked on the former president, who died on December 14.

During the early weeks of 1800, every city in the United States commemorated the death of the former leader. In Philadelphia, an empty coffin, a riderless horse, and a funeral cortege moved through the city streets. In Boston, business was suspended, cannons roared, bells pealed, and 6,000 people--a fifth of the city's population--stood in the streets to express their last respects for the fallen general. In Washington, Richard Henry Lee delivered the most famous eulogy. He proclaimed that Washington was "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."

In 1789, it was an open question whether the Constitution was a workable plan of government. For a decade, the nation faced bitter party conflict, threats of secession, and foreign interference with American shipping and commerce.

By any standard, the new nation's achievements were impressive. During the first decade under the Constitution, the country adopted a bill of rights, protecting the rights of the individual against the power of the central and state governments; enacted a financial program that secured the government's credit and stimulated the economy; and created the first political parties that directly involved the enfranchised segment of the population in national politics. In the face of intense partisan conflict, the United States became the first nation to peacefully transfer political power from one party to another as a result of an election. A nation, strong and viable, had emerged from its baptism by fire.



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