From “Heroes Every Child Should Know.” Copyright, 1906, by Doubleday, Page & Co.
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WASHINGTON’S LAST DAYS
Once more before he died Washington was called into public life for a short time. President Adams had sent three commissioners to France. The French Minister, Talleyrand, treated them ill, and sent secret agents to them to let them know that nothing would be done until they paid large bribes. The three Americans sent home cipher dispatches in which they told how they had been received. President Adams thought best to publish these dispatches, putting the letters X, Y, and Z in place of the names of the secret agents. These papers came to be known as the X, Y, and Z dispatches, and they caused great excitement in America. The cry was, “Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” and the war spirit rose very high. Everyone wished Washington to be the leader in case there should be war with France. President Adams accordingly wrote to Washington, asking him to accept the command of the new army which was to be formed. Washington accepted, on condition that he was not to be called into service unless there should really be war, and that he should be allowed to name the chief officers who were to serve under him. He wished to put a young and able man second in command—for old officers seldom make good ones—so he chose Hamilton first, then Pinckney, and then Knox. Adams disliked Hamilton, and tried to place Knox second in command, as this old officer thought his due. There was some trouble between Washington and Adams on this point, but Adams was forced to give way to the great leader. Washington went to Philadelphia in the fall of 1798, to work over army plans with his major-generals. It seemed possible that he might have to lead the Americans against one of Napoleon’s great armies. But though he made careful preparations, Washington did not believe that there would be war. He thought, however, that preparing for war would be the best way to bring about peace. And so it proved; for no sooner did Talleyrand see that the Americans were really aroused than he caused it to be intimated to the American Minister at Holland that he would treat another envoy better. Adams accordingly sent one to France, and war was finally averted, though the news of the settlement did not reach America until after the death of her great General.
Washington had said, “I am of a short-lived family, and cannot remain long upon the earth.” In fact, his sister and all of his brothers except one died before he did. According to his usual careful habits, he made out a long paper, in which he planned how his estates should be managed for several years, with a rotation of crops. He finished this paper only four days before his death. The day before he was taken ill he walked out with his nephew, Lawrence Lewis, who was married to Nelly Custis and living at Mount Vernon, and talked to him about building a new family vault. “This change,” said he, “I shall make first of all, for I may require it before the rest.”