Retirement and Legacy
Desiring to return to Mount Vernon and his farming, and feeling the decline of his physical powers with age, Washington refused to yield to the pressures to serve a third term, even though he would probably not have faced any opposition. By doing this, he was again mindful of the precedent of being the "first president," and chose to establish a peaceful transition of government.
In the last months of his presidency, Washington felt he needed to give his country one last measure of himself. With the help of Alexander Hamilton, he composed his Farewell Address to the American people, which urged his fellow citizens to cherish the Union and avoid partisanship and permanent foreign alliances. In March 1797, he turned over the government to John Adams and returned to Mount Vernon, determined to live his last years as a simple gentleman farmer. His last official act was to pardon the participants in the Whiskey Rebellion.
Upon returning to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1797, Washington felt a reflective sense of relief and accomplishment. He had left the government in capable hands, at peace, its debts well-managed, and set on a course of prosperity. He devoted much of his time to tending the farm's operations and management. Although he was perceived to be wealthy, his land holdings were only marginally profitable.
During his long absence, the plantation had not been productive, and there was much work to be done. On a cold December day in 1799, Washington spent much of it inspecting the farm on horseback in a driving snowstorm. When he returned home, he hastily ate his supper in his wet clothes and then went to bed. The next morning, on December 13, he awoke with a severe sore throat and became increasingly hoarse. He retired early, but awoke around 3 a.m. and told Martha that he felt sick. The illness progressed until he died late in the evening of December 14, 1799. The news of his death spread throughout the country, plunging the nation into a deep mourning. Many towns and cities held mock funerals and presented hundreds of eulogies to honor their fallen hero. When the news of this death reached Europe, the British fleet paid tribute to his memory, and Napoleon ordered ten days of mourning.
Washington could have been a king. Instead, he chose to be a citizen. He set many precedents for the national government and the presidency: The two-term limit in office, only broken once by Franklin Roosevelt, and then later ensconced in the Constitution's 22nd Amendment. He crystallized the power of the presidency as a part of the government’s three branches, able to exercise authority when necessary, but also accept the balance of power inherent in the system.
He was not only considered a military and revolutionary hero, but a man of great personal integrity, with a deep sense of duty, honor, and patriotism. For over 200 years, Washington has been acclaimed as indispensible to the success of the Revolution and the birth of the nation. But his most important legacy may be that he insisted he was dispensable, asserting that the cause of liberty was larger than any single individual.