George Washington Papers

To George Washington from James McHenry, 28 June 1789

From James McHenry

Baltimore 28 June 1789.

Dear Sir.

Your late indisposition which has alarmed me not a little makes me more desirous than ever that you should have some person near you who is well acquainted with your constitution and who has been accustomed to your confidence.1 This leads me to take the liberty to remind you of old Doctor Craik whom I well know, unless he is greatly changed cannot be very happy at a distance from you. I think you said when I suggested this subject that he had settled most of his children to his satisfaction, a circumstance which may enable him to follow his inclinations should you incline to indulge them. I have two reasons for mentioning this again to you. I know him to be an attached friend which nothing can alter, and one whom you might find useful on a variety of occasions. I know also that he is a man of skill in his profession and that from habit and opinion you would place more reliance on his advice than perhaps on any other persons. I may add also that there is no one amongst all those who are devoted to you from even the purest motives, that as far as I can judge of the human heart loves you with a more fervent friendship or would serve you with more zeal—in whatever respect either your fame or internal tranquility.

I hope my dear General will forgive this second intrusion. I have been of late so conversant with sickness and distress in my family that it has given me perhaps more acute feelings for your situation. Do not I beseech you deny yourself any thing that may contribute to your happiness. I have a brother who ingrosses most of my time and yet though greatly alarmed on his account I was sensibly awakened by the public account of your illness. But I hope all danger is now over and that the next papers will make us easy on this head. In ten days I set out to the sweet Springs in Virginia with my brother where I shall not fail to pray for the preservation of your health as fervently as for the restoration of his.2 With the most sincere and affectionate regards I am Dr Sir Your devoted hble St

James McHenry


1In mid-June 1789 GW developed a severe fever that was soon attributed to an emerging growth on his left thigh. For a brief period he was seriously ill, although the extent of his incapacitation was not widely appreciated by the public. David Stuart wrote him on 14 July, “I am much distressed, to find your indisposition has been much more severe than appeared from the Public papers.” Perhaps to mitigate concern most newpapers gave only brief mentions of the president’s illness. A report in the Massachusetts Centinel (Boston), 27 June 1789, was typical of newspaper comment elsewhere: “The publick anxiety has been conspicuously apparent, from some accounts received from New-York, which have mentioned the indisposition of our beloved President:—That our information on this subject might be authentick, we have had recourse to the best channels for intelligence—and through them we learn:—That about the 16th inst. His Excellency was attacked with a slow fever, which continued on him for several days, and was at periods attended with some alarming symptoms—but we are happy to add, he is now in a state of CONVALESCENCE.—His Excellency was attended by the principal physicians of New-York—and chains were extended across the streets, to prevent carriages passing before his door.” The Pennsylvania Packet, and Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), 22 June, simply reported that GW had been much indisposed for several days past but it was hoped “that this indisposition will not prove other than incidental, and the cause be soon removed.” See also Custis, Recollections, description begins George Washington Parke Custis. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. New York, 1860. description ends 398. GW was under the care of Dr. Samuel Bard, one of the city’s leading physicians, who initially diagnosed the president’s illness as anthrax. John McVickar, professor of moral philosophy and rhetoric at Columbia University and Bard’s friend, later related that the physician had found the infection “so malignant as for several days to threaten mortification. During this period, Dr. Bard never quitted him. On one occasion, being left alone with him, General Washington . . . desired his candid opinion as to the probable termination of the disease. . . . Dr. Bard’s answer, though it expressed hope, acknowledged his apprehensions” (McVickar, Life of Samuel Bard, description begins John McVickar. A Domestic Narrative of the Life of Samuel Bard, M.D., LL.D. New York, 1822. description ends 136–37). Bard determined that the tumor on GW’s thigh required immediate surgery, and on 17 June, aided by his father, Dr. John Bard, he performed the operation. Within a short time the president began to respond to Bard’s treatment, although he remained confined to his bed and suffered from severe weakness. By 25 June he was able to direct Lear to write to James Duane that the “President of the United States has directed me to return his best thanks to you and the Magistrates of the City of New York, for the kind attention which has been observed in preventing the disturbance occasioned by carriages passing the street during his late indisposition;—and to inform you that he is now so far recovered as to render a continuance of the obstruction unnecessary: The ropes which have been extended across the street will therefore be removed this morning” (original in NHi, quoted in Langstaff, Bard, description begins John Brett Langstaff. Doctor Bard of Hyde Park: The Famous Physician of Revolutionary Times, the Man Who Saved Washington’s Life. New York, 1942. description ends 172–73). By 3 July GW wrote McHenry that “my health is restored, but a feebleness still hangs upon me, and I am yet much incommoded by the incision which was made in a very large and painful tumor on the protuberance of my thigh—this prevents me from walking or sitting; however the Physicians assure me that it has had a happy effect in removing my fever, and will tend very much to the establishment of my general health. . . . I am able to take exercise in my coach, by having it so contrived, as to extend myself the full length of it.” The New York Daily Advertiser announced on 29 July that the president was now well enough to receive visitors, although for the time being only at the regular levee on Tuesdays. Actually GW was attending to business by 4 July when he attended the festivities celebrating the anniversary of independence. See GW to the Society of the Cincinnati, 4 July 1789. Dr. Bard continued to attend him, and he wrote his daughter Susan Bard on 25 Aug. that “the President’s complaint continues to mend and I have not the least doubt of affecting a perfect and, I hope, a speedy cure. It will give you pleasure to be told that nothing can exceed the kindness and attention I receive from him” (quoted in Langstaff, Bard, description begins John Brett Langstaff. Doctor Bard of Hyde Park: The Famous Physician of Revolutionary Times, the Man Who Saved Washington’s Life. New York, 1942. description ends 175). See also GW to James Craik, 8 Sept. 1789.

2McHenry’s brother John had become seriously ill as early as the spring and summer of 1787, when his condition forced James McHenry to leave the Constitutional Convention for two months. In early July 1789 McHenry undertook a trip to the Sweet Springs in Virginia with his brother and his own son Daniel in the vain hope of improving his brother’s health. See McHenry to GW, 2 July 1789. John McHenry died in May 1790 (Steiner, Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, description begins Bernard C. Steiner. The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry: Secretary of War under Washington and Adams. Cleveland, 1907. description ends 97, 100, 117, 120, 121, 123, 125).

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