This is the one hundred and tenth anniversary of the birthday of Washington. We are met to celebrate this day. Washington’s is the mightiest name of earth — long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty; still mightiest in moral reformation. On that name no eulogy is expected. It cannot be. To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor leave it shining on.
Abraham Lincoln, February 22, 1842
It won’t be that long, only fourteen years, until it will be three centuries since the birth of the Father of our Country. Washington, as one might expect, paid little attention to his birthdays, not taking note of them in his diaries. However, even during his lifetime the date was being observed with celebrations by the American people. On his last birthday in 1799, when he turned 67, the Washington family observed the marriage of his step granddaughter, Eleanor Parke, called Nellie, Custis. After the death of her father, who died of camp fever contracted during the siege of Yorktown in 1781, she and her brother George Washington Parke Custis, with the consent of their mother who was raising the five other children she and her late husband had, lived with the Washingtons and were informally adopted by them. Throughout her life she regarded herself as the custodian of her adopted father’s memory. Much of what we know about the personal life of the Washingtons comes from her correspondence with biographers seeking information about Washington.
I suspect that the topic of mortality may have crossed Washington’s mind on his last birthday. His father had lived only until 49 and Washington had a bout of his recurrent malaria in 1798 which had only tardily responded to quinine. Washington had been enjoying his retirement from public life, but he was beginning to feel his years. However, he had no fears of death and approached it with a sense of humor. Martha Washington in 1797 in a letter to Elizabeth Willing Powel, made the following observation from her husband: “I am now, by desire of the General to add a few words on his behalf; which he desires may be expressed in the terms following, that is to say, that despairing of hearing what may be said of him, if he should really go off in an Apoplectic, or any other fit, (for he thinks all fits that issue in death, are worse than a love fit, a fit of laughter, and many other kinds which he could name); he is glad to hear beforehand what will be said of him on that occasion; conceiving that nothing extra: will happen between this and then to make a change in his character for better, or for worse.”