In 1799 George Washington lay dying and only one task remained: uttering his last words. These days deciding whether to turn off the life-support machine seems the key question surrounding death. In simpler times, last words attracted universal curiosity.
No one has chiseled Washington's on marble, however.
"Do not let my body be put in the vault in less than two days after I'm dead," instructed the Father of his Country. Although assured of immortality -- the capital was already named after him -- he strained to make sure the order would be followed. He asked, "Do you understand me?" He greeted the nods of those surrounding him with a satisfied, "'Tis well," and died.
Washington set the style.For many old pols, even at the end, the only question was survival.
On July 6, 1826, two days after a large celebration of the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washingtonians were deeply touched by the news that Thomas Jefferson had died on July 4. His last words were reported to be: "Is it the Fourth?"
A week later, the nation was astounded to learn that John Adams also had died on the Fourth, murmuring at the end: "Jefferson survives."
The nation was sure that fate's mighty mojo was working. And five years later, the 55th anniversary of the Signing, James Monroe died -- on July 4.
As they say in the sports world, the pressure was on James Madison, who was rather ill in 1836, six days before the 60th anniversary of the Signing. When, at breakfast, his niece noticed that he was having some trouble, she asked him what was wrong.
"Nothing more than a change of mind," he answered, and died on June 28.
The next in line, our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, provided a different kind of drama at the end. In 1848, he represented Massachusetts in the House of Representatives. He had been ill for some time, but ventured to his seat on Feb. 21. A resolution commending certain generals who fought in the Mexican War had come to a vote. Adams had enough strength to shout his irritated "No!" as the House passed the measure. Then he tried to speak, clenched his desk and fell. Members took him to the speaker's chamber where he rallied enough to say, "This is the last of Earth: I am content." He said no more and died two days later.
Such was the anniversarymania of the time that a eulogist gently accused Washington's greatest survivor (Adams served as secretary of state, president and member of Congress) of surviving too long:
"Mr. Adams longed to die in the Capitol... If Adams could have expired when, as well as where, he wished, it would have been the next day after his attack, on the 22nd of February, Washington's birthday, instead of living until the evening of the 23rd."
But that was only nagging criticism because with the passing of William Henry Harrison and Andrew Jackson, fate's spell had been broken. Harrison had died April 4, 1841, after a month in office, and Jackson had died June 8, 1845. Neither dates were the anniversary of anything important.
Harrison had been elected after the first real hard-ball, hard-sell campaign in the nation's history. Not surprisingly, versions of his death followed party lines. Whigs portrayed their man as rallying resolutely just before being wasted by pneumonia and addressing his doctor: "Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more."
Democrats heard it differently. Harrison was delirious and ranting: "It is wrong... I won't consent... 'tis unjust. These applications [for appointments], will they never cease?... I cannot stand it. I cannot bear this... Don't trouble me." And he died.
Take your pick.
Daniel Webster, said to be the greatest orator of his age, left nothing to chance.At the end, he surrounded himself with note-takers, and orated. Just to give a clue to the verbal heights Webster reached on his last day, one phrase recorded was "crepuscular twilight."
Webster apparently was really cooking. At one point, he appealed to the crowd around him: "Have I... wife, son, doctor, friends, are you all here?... have I, on this occasion, said anything unworthy of Daniel Webster?"
Just before the end, he asked someone to read the 23rd Psalm. The line, "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me," inspired the champion debater:
"Yes, thy rod, thy staff, but the fact, the fact I want."
Then he cried out: "I still live!" and died.
The culture of narcissism that trendy thinkers talk about is at least as old as the United States Senate.
Although the fact probably seldom crosses people's minds, vice presidents also die. One uttered final words that struck a chord with the capital's survival mania and thus were recorded for posterity. Henry Wilson, Grant's vice president, died in his office in the Capitol. He had caught a chill taking a bath in the Senate bathroom. Reportedly, before he expired on Nov. 10, 1875, he said: "If I live to the close of my present term, there will be only five who have served their country so long as I."
At least Supreme Court justices were somewhat apologetic for their propensity to seem to survive forever. In 1911, Justice John Marshall Harlan, 78, came out of a coma long enough to say, "Goodbye. I am sorry to have kept you all waiting so long," and died.
But Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. seemingly pooh-poohed the survival mania. When doctors brought in an oxygen tent, he groused: "Lot of damn foolery." And he didn't plan to hang around for anniversaries, having seen enough of them. He died two days before his 94th birthday.
One might expect our government's warriors to die with furious words of struggle and survival. But Gen. Douglas MacArthur was quite apt when he quoted the old barracks ballad: "Old soldiers ever die, they just fade away." MacArthur's biographer, William Manchester, noted only that the general died at Walter Reed Army Hospital, reminiscing during the waning days. None of the reminiscences were apparently worth recording.
Other fighting men made more of a mark on the record books. In 1858, the Pawnee Chief Tuckalixtah, who had come in a delegation to meet with the Great White Father, contracted pneumonia, which caused his death. After regretting that he had not fallen in battle, he tried in a small way to right the strategic imbalance between the Indians and the cavalry: "I hope that the Great Father will give my brother a horse as a memento of me."
The greatest of the nurses certainly heard the distant drums. Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, died in Glen Echo, Md., in 1912. She described the delirious dreams she had of the battlefield scenes she saw during the Civil War:
"Once again I stood by them and witnessed those soldiers bearing their soldier pains, limbs being sawed off without opiates being taken or even a bed to lie on... and I heard them at last speak of mothers and wives and sweethearts, but never a murmur of complaint. Then I awoke to hear myself groan because I have a stupid pain in my back."
At the end, the echo of distant battles was, perhaps, too alluring. She died crying out: "Let me go! Let me go!"
A few years later there was a curious example of surrender on a Washington death-bed.
Calvin Coolidge Jr., the president's 16-year-old son, died from blood poisoning from a blister that he got after playing tennis on the south lawn of the White House. He was delirious for four days, shouting and imagining that he was fighting a battle. He cried out, "I surrender!" and then turned to the nurse beside his bed and said, "Now you say it too, say you surrender."
"All right, Calvin, I surrender," responded the nurse, trying to comfort him.
The boy slipped into a coma and soon died.
Coolidge Sr. died in more traditional Washington style. He hurried up to his bedroom to die of a heart attack after greeting the man who did the chores around the house with a "Good morning, Robert."
This no-nonsense approach seemed to start with Millard Fillmore, who died after noting, "The nourishment is palatable." Teddy Roosevelt's last remarks were to his valet: "James, will you please put out the light." FDR, who died of a cerebral hemorrhage, merely noted the obvious: "I have a terrific headache."
There seems to have been an almost universal lack of curiosity as to what Eisenhower and Truman might have last uttered. The book Ike and Mamie claims that Ike said, "I want to go. God take me." Maybe, but the book also has Ike dying on March 8, while the rest of us mourned his passing on March 28, 1969.
The as-yet-unpublished third volume of Robert Caro's monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson may revive interest in last words. LBJ died just after talking on the phone to the secret service agents on his ranch. The painstakingly prolix Caro might squeeze a chapter or two out of those last hours.
Until then, words from the halcyon days will have to serve to symbolize the greatest hopes of the survival maniacs of Washington. In 1845, the family gathered around the bed of Andy Jackson and his son asked, "Father, how do you feel? Do you know me?"
"Know you? Yes, I know you. I would know you all if I could see you. Bring me my specs."
For some reason, that brought on some moaning from the crowd.
"Please don't cry," said Old Hickory. "Be good children and we'll all meet in heaven, black and white."
And the former president joined the elect on high.