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It was George Washington’s last day. The great man had fallen ill just 24 hours earlier on December 13, 1799, with what at first appeared to be nothing more than a cold and sore throat. But a bevy of doctors struggled to halt the increasing severity of his symptoms, which grew to include breathing difficulties. And when Washington’s death came soon afterwards, the still-young nation that the former president had once led was plunged in mourning. What was truly surprising, though, was the reaction of his old enemy, the British, to the news.

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Washington’s decline had started on December 12 after he had toured his estate, Mount Vernon, in driving sleet. Soaked to the skin, he then went back to his mansion where guests awaited him. And ever the attentive host, Washington sat down to dinner with his visitors rather than choosing to change out of his cold and sodden garments.

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Then, two days later, Washington was dead, and a country grieved its loss. But it wasn’t just Americans who noted the passing of a man who had played such a major part in forging their nation. The British also had cause to register the fact that Washington – who had led an army against them in the Revolutionary War – had succumbed to his illness.

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And the British reaction to Washington’s death came in the light of the fact that the man could be regarded as a traitor to the Empire. After all, the Founding Father had initially been an officer in the colonial British militia that had fought against the French. By 1769, though, he’d seemingly had enough of British taxation without representation and so had turned against his colonial masters.

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The Revolutionary War between Britain and the Thirteen Colonies would also commence in 1775, with the bitter conflict dragging on for eight years before the British finally conceded defeat. Tens of thousands of British troops had lost their lives in the conflict, too. So, on the face of it, those living on the other side of the Atlantic had little reason to love the first U.S. president. But their reaction to his death continues to astonish even today.

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We’ll get back to that surprising reaction to Washington’s demise shortly, but first let’s have a quick refresher on the man’s story. Washington entered the world in 1732 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. And the future president actually had British heritage of his own. John Washington, his great-grandfather, was the first of his ancestors to arrive in America, coming to Virginia from England in 1656.

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Washington’s father, Augustine, meanwhile, was a judge. And as was the case with all born in the British colonies in America at the time, Washington was a subject of the monarch of the day: King George II. His family stayed within the colony of Virginia, too, although they relocated on a couple of occasions during his childhood. Then in 1743 Augustine passed away, leaving Washington to take on the family farm and its accompanying slaves.

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And although Washington didn’t attend school as a youngster, he did show some talent in drawing. This skill – along with his knowledge of the basics of math – helped earn him work as a surveyor in 1748, with the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg awarding him his surveyor’s license a year later. Washington worked in that profession until 1750. During that decade, he was also a substantial landowner, ending up with holdings of more than 2,300 acres in total in Virginia.

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Then, in 1752, Washington took a commission as a major in the Virginia militia. At the time, there was conflict between the British and the French as they vied for dominance in the Ohio Valley, with both sides dotting the region with forts. And in 1753 Virginia’s lieutenant governor would see fit to give Washington his own special mission. In particular, the future president was tasked with making peace with some of the Native American tribes; he also had to give the French their marching orders from an area that had been claimed by the British.

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In the event, though, the French refused to budge. And in 1754 Washington had his first taste of battle when his militia detachment successfully ambushed a French unit. This in turn sparked further conflict in what would come to be known as the French and Indian War. Yet while Washington was ultimately promoted to regimental commander, a pitched battle with the French at Fort Necessity didn’t see him shine in the position. During that skirmish, his force was defeated, leaving Washington and his men with no choice but to wave the white flag.

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Washington subsequently gave up his commission, although he continued to act as an aide de camp to General Edward Braddock on a voluntary basis. And the Founding Father experienced the bitter taste of defeat again in 1755, when the French attacked Braddock’s men and killed the general at the Battle of Monongahela.

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But despite this catastrophe – as well as an acute bout of dysentery – Washington emerged with honor, having roused the remaining part of the British forces and thus enabling the survivors to retreat. During the fighting, bullets whizzed through his clothing, and twice horses he was riding were wounded. Washington’s well-earned reputation for bravery in the face of danger would stay with him for the rest of his life.

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Then in 1759 – now aged 26 – Washington wed Martha Custis. And although the couple never had children together, there were two from Martha’s previous marriage; her first husband had died in 1757, leaving her a large inheritance. Forsaking the military for the time being, Washington settled with his wife at his Mount Vernon estate in Virginia. In between overseeing the plantation, though, he sowed the seeds of what would ultimately become a very successful political career.

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By this period, in fact, Washington now ranked among Virginia’s richest residents – thanks in part to the money and land that Martha had brought to the marriage. And in 1758 he took his first steps into politics by becoming an elected representative on the Virginia General Assembly – a position he would hold for seven years. During this time, however, his frustration with the British colonial administration grew.

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In 1769, for example, Washington was one of the leading lights in a campaign to boycott British goods. The British Parliament and the monarch in London had precipitated this action through measures designed to tighten control of the American colonies. And, predictably, mounting tension between the colonials and their British masters came to a head in 1775 with the start of the American Revolutionary War.

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During the conflict, moreover, Americans were divided into two groups. The Patriots supported armed insurrection against the British; the Loyalists, on the other hand, believed that they owed their allegiance to the King. And Washington is said to have been unpleasantly startled by the outbreak of hostilities. After hearing the news, he then swiftly left his Mount Vernon plantation to become part of the Continental Congress – a body formed by the Patriots.

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Yes, although he may have been stunned by the start of the Revolutionary War, Washington had no doubt about which side he was on. And his loyalty to both the Patriots and the Continental Congress was soon confirmed when he was appointed commander-in-chief of the American rebels’ Continental Army. This force’s first major engagement came in the summer of 1775 with the Siege of Boston. Washington arrived in the city in July of that year with a mission to defeat the British ensconced there.

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After Washington had made Cambridge his base, however, he found that his army was an ill-disciplined, ragtag band. To instil some form of order in the men, then, the commander-in-chief set about whipping them into shape – a task that did indeed involve flogging on occasion. Eventually, in March 1776 Washington’s force succeeded in dislodging the British, who fled by sea from from Boston. This was the first notable victory for the rebels.

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But there would be no quick win in this war for independence from the British – even after the Declaration of Independence came into being in 1776. And despite this act of defiance, Washington’s troops were ultimately forced into retreat after the Battle of Long Island.

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The Long Island defeat and resulting withdrawal marked a low point in Patriot fortunes and a nadir for Washington himself. Even some of his own troops and supporters were doubting his effectiveness as a leader. Luckily for the Founding Father, then, there would be a victory that revitalized the rebels’ cause. And while in military terms the crossing of the Delaware River and the defeat of the British at Trenton was a fairly minor affair, the success nevertheless inspired the Patriots.

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Then the final major action of the war came in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia, where the armies of the French joined together with Patriot troops to lay siege to the British in the city. That battle ultimately resulted in the capture of some 7,000 British men – and it was the end of the road for outside rule of America.

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And the peace talks that followed resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. This landmark agreement secured the independence of the United States, guaranteeing its status as its own country. With that victory achieved, it was time for Washington to step down from his military duties and to return to his Mount Vernon estate.

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Addressing Congress on the occasion of his resignation, Washington said, “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my official life by commending the interests of our dearest country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.”

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Despite those earnest words, of course, the truth was that this was far from “the last solemn act” of Washington’s public life. Nonetheless, at that time he did return to the tranquility of Mount Vernon, where he’d resided for only ten days during the eight years in which he’d commanded the Continental Army. And although his finances were far from thriving, it was a blessed relief to go back to his plantation.

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But the call of public life came once again in 1787 when – reluctantly and after much persuasion – Washington attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. This event was held against a background of disorder in the U.S. as well as calls for a new constitution to stabilize the young nation. Washington attended the convention as part of the Virginia delegation, having refused an invitation to lead it.

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Once Washington appeared at the get-together, however, the delegates wasted little time in nominating him as the body’s president general. Then, two years later, the convention went on to elect him as the first president of the U.S. And in spite of serious misgivings about once again leaving Mount Vernon for public life, Washington traveled to New York in April 1789 for his inauguration.

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The ceremony was held in New York City’s Federal Hall, with a 10,000-strong audience entertained by a marching band and a 13-gun salute. And while the new leader initially declined a salary for his role, Congress insisted that he take $25,000 a year for the inevitable expenses of the job. So, after having led the country to freedom as military commander-in-chief, Washington now stood at the head of the youthful nation as president.

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In his acceptance speech, Washington implored God to “consecrate the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States.” The new president believed, too, that he would serve one four-year term only – although the perilous state of the nation eventually convinced him to agree on a second. And despite the political discord that surrounded him, he began to build a reputation as a non-partisan leader.

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Yet Washington’s patience may have been sorely tried by the bitter rivalry between two leading figures in his administration: Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was a federalist, you see, while Jefferson, by contrast, emphasized states’ rights – with the pair both reflecting tensions that trouble the U.S. to this day. In fact, it could be argued that Jefferson and Hamilton’s constant feuding over policy was a key factor in Washington’s decision to agree to a second term.

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Washington needed to be persuaded to consider spending another four years as president, however. Ironically, arch enemies Hamilton and Jefferson were both among those who succeeded in convincing Washington to agree to another term in office – making the matter one of the few things on which the bitter rivals agreed. And in February 1793 the Electoral College undisputedly chose Washington as president for the second time.

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So, Washington was only finally able to relinquish the presidency in 1797. And it seems that this event came not a moment too soon as far as he was concerned. The American press and his political enemies had been increasingly hostile towards the Founding Father as his second term had drawn to a close – a state of affairs that he had apparently greatly resented. Washington also believed that the nation would be best served by a genuine battle for the presidency.

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At last, Washington was able to return to his beloved Mount Vernon and Martha. That said, it still wasn’t quite the end of his public life. Hostilities with revolutionary France had broken out in 1798, leading Washington to reprise his role as commander-in-chief of the U.S. military. It seems his position was largely symbolic, though, with Hamilton actually taking day-to-day command. And in the event, the conflict was limited – with no fighting on American soil.

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But, sadly, Washington had little time to enjoy his life after retiring from the presidency. As we saw earlier, it was less than three years later in December 1799 that he fell ill and died at his Mount Vernon estate. The onset of his illness was shockingly sudden after he’d taken a soaking in freezing weather while touring the Mount Vernon acres.

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The doctors bled Washington in order to help cure his ailments, although the treatment seemingly did little to ease the badly swollen throat that troubled him. Modern medical science has diagnosed a likely case of epiglottis – a swelling to the rear of the tongue that can severely restrict breathing. The loss of so much blood may also have been a factor in Washington’s death at the age of 67.

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And it’s hardly a surprise that Washington’s passing was widely mourned in the U.S. – a nation that he’d done so much to create. What could come as more of a shock, however, is the reaction of his old enemy, the British, to the news. Rather than celebrating the death of a man who could be regarded as a traitor to their nation, the Brits instead succumbed to an outpouring of genuine grief.

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And in 1999 History Today suggested that Washington had been held in great esteem in Britain, as the magazine quoted from an article published in London’s The Morning Chronicle at the time of the former president’s death. “The whole range of history does not present to our view a character upon which we can dwell with such entire and unmixed admiration,” the paper’s contributor wrote.

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The Morning Chronicle continued with its praise for the Founding Father, saying, “The long life of George Washington is not stained by a single blot… His fame, bounded by no country, will be confined by no age.” And there were other highly complimentary eulogies in British newspapers to boot.

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A further article published in March 1800 proclaimed rather wordily of Washington, “His coolness in danger, his firmness in distress, his moderation in the hour of victory, his resignation of power and his meritorious deportment in private life have established a name which will go down in history with those who have deserved well of their country, with those who are entitled to be considered the benefactors of mankind.”

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Reading these fulsome British tributes to Washington, it’s almost a struggle to remember that this was the man who led a revolutionary war against Britain that dragged on for more than eight years. Even the Royal Navy got in on the act, lowering their flags to half-mast to mark Washington’s death.

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In fact, although Washington may be an American hero today, he arguably received a lot more abuse from his own people than he did from the British while he was alive – especially during his second presidential term. Somehow, though – at least by the time of his death – he’d become a deeply respected and even revered figure in the nation against which he had turned in 1775. And, of course, today many Americans regard Washington as the “Father of His Country.”

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