George Washington Papers

[Diary entry: 9 May 1790]

Sunday 9th. Indisposed with a bad cold, and at home all day writing letters on private business.

GW’s cold rapidly developed into pneumonia. Local physicians Dr. Samuel Bard, Dr. Charles McKnight, and Dr. John Charlton were summoned to the president’s bedside, but in spite of their efforts GW grew steadily worse. On 12 May, William Jackson wrote to Clement Biddle in Philadelphia enclosing a letter to Dr. John Jones, a prominent Philadelphia physician, requesting him to attend the president in New York. “The Doctor’s prudence will suggest the propriety of setting out as privately as possible; perhaps it may be well to assign a personal reason for visiting New York, or going into the Country” (WRITINGS description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C., 1931–44. description ends , 31:41, n.73). By 15 May, however, the seriousness of GW’s condition was widely known. “Called to see the President,” William Maclay noted in his diary. “Every eye full of tears. His life despaired of. Dr. MacKnight told me he would trifle neither with his own character nor the public expectation; his danger was imminent, and every reason to expect that the event of his disorder would be unfortunate” (MACLAY description begins Charles A. Beard, ed. The Journal of William Maclay: United States Senator from Pennsylvania, 1789–1791. 1927. Reprint. New York, 1965. description ends , 258–59; see also JAY description begins Henry P. Johnston, ed. The Correspondence and Public Papers of John Jay. 4 vols. New York and London, 1890-93. description ends , 3:399). By the next day the outlook was more hopeful. On 16 May Jefferson wrote his daughter Martha Jefferson Randolph: “On Monday last the President was taken with a peripneumony, of threatening appearance. Yesterday (which was the 5th. day) he was thought by the physicians to be dying. However about 4. oclock in the evening a copious sweat came on, his expectoration, which had been thin and ichorous, began to assume a well digested form, his articulation became distinct, and in the course of two hours it was evident he had gone thro’ a favorable crisis. He continues mending to-day, and from total despair we are now in good hopes of him” (JEFFERSON [1] description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 16:429).

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