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Part 1 of this piece on George Washington’s mysterious 1789 illness.

–by William diGiacomantonio

Hand-colored Currier & Ives lithograph depicting Washington’s reception in Trenton as he traveled to NYC in 1789 to take the presidential oath. (Library of Congress)

One of Smith’s fellow Representatives—also named Smith, but from South Carolina, and evidently better connected—provided a more detailed description of the malady the same day. (The reading is not for the faint of heart.)

[Washington] was lying extremely ill in bed—it was not known at the time, but we have been since informed told, that he was in some danger—I had a long conversation yesterday with his Doctor [Samuel Bard], who informed me that the President had been troubled with a Bile on his Seat, which had been so inflamed by his riding on horseback as to grow into an Imposthume as large as my two fists—this occasioned a fever of a threatening nature—it was apprehended that it would turn into a malignant fever one & the Doctor sat up with him one night—the fever however abated & the Imposthume has been opened.  (833)

The President was “out of all danger,” Smith assured his correspondent, “but will be prevented for some time from sitting up.” A week after the boil had been suppurated, Washington was getting around with crutches (886), and by the end of July he was “so far recovered that he has rode out, & again attends his levee & receives company.” (1215-16)

Eighteenth-century medicine had hardly yet progressed beyond the Middle Ages. The type of fever that matches the descriptions of Washington’s illness was fully capable of carrying off men even more robust than he, so contemporaries were not unnecessarily alarmist in fearing a fatal outcome. But even more noteworthy than their regret for the sake of the man was their lament for the sake of the country. Carolina’s Smith was “in hopes that before his death, a number of questions will be settled, the discussion of which under his Successor would give rise to parties & factions.” (833)

In a confidential dispatch to Versailles, the French Ambassador considered the President’s early departure as worse than the country’s having no bureaucratic apparatus whatsoever: added to “the singular spectacle of a Government without courts, without treasury, without army and without Ministers,” Washington’s brush with death

was a momentary disturbance as the prospect of a more unusual event presented itself, should the confederation lose its chief before being able to consolidate. Because in fact the political edifice of the United States is as yet barely prepared to set its foundation. (882-83)

Only after Washington had started down the road of a promising recovery could Smith of Carolina’s father in law, Senator Ralph Izard, finally bring himself to admit the unthinkable: “it would have been a dreadful calamity at this critical time, if he had died.” (849) Representative James Madison agreed, in nearly the same words: “His death at the present moment would have brought on another crisis in our affairs.” (853) No one knew the ramifications of Washington’s death better than Madison who, during those first six months in the House of Representatives, was perhaps the closest that any congressman has come to serving as a sort of Prime Minister to an American head of state.

Because of his closeness to the crisis, no one was more candid—or clinical—in naming the threat than Madison. In a letter to Jefferson, who was still far away in Paris, Madison described the boil as a “large anthrax on the upper end of his thigh.” (894) The diagnosis was that of Washington’s personal physician at the time, but the disease unfortunately has all too contemporary a relevance to modern congressional history. If Dr. Bard’s diagnosis was correct, the ulcerous legion was probably caused by a toxic spore from an infected animal or animal product to which his patient may have been exposed through a cut or abrasion—such as Washington, an avid horseback rider, would have been prone to precisely at the site of his infection.

Presidential life didn’t seem to agree with Washington’s immune system: early the next year he was laid low again, and even more gravely, by an especially rabid case of influenza. He survived that too, of course. But by then his contemporaries had already reconciled themselves with the very real possibility that the Constitution might not outlive the first President to serve under it. Instead, we are into the third decade of the third century of the American Presidency—the first centennial of which was celebrated by Washington’s 22nd successor in office, none other than William Henry Harrison’s grandson, Benjamin Harrison.

Note: all quotes are from Charlene Bickford et al., The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (20 vols. to date; Baltimore, 1972-), volume 16.