Deaths of the Founding Fathers

Happy Fourth of July!

We all learned in school about our founding fathers, who stood up to Great Britain and fought and won freedom for the American colonies. However, after the creation of the nation, Articles of Confederation, and later our constitution, we really don’t hear anything about the founding fathers.

Did you know that several of them died on July 4th?

George Washington

Creepy Washington from Madam Tussauds

After years and years of fighting a war then life in the public eye as the first President of the United States, Washington was relieved to retire in 1797. His wife, Martha, was also excited at his retirement because she got to see him at home more than once every seven years.

Washington went home to his estate, Mount Vernon, to farm and make booze. Most assumed he was wealthy because of the estate and keeping up appearances, but most of his wealth was tied up in land and slaves (yes, he was a huge slave holder. But that will be eventually be another post).

Washington didn’t have any of his own children, possibly due to infertility caused by tuberculosis epididymitis. He adopted Martha’s children from her first marriage and after the death of her children took care of the grandchildren and their offspring.

Washington’s death is believed to be either from illness or from the treatment of that illness. On December 12, 1799, he had spent hours outside in the snow on horseback working on his farm. Not wanting to keep his guests waiting, he didn’t change before dinner and wore cold, wet clothing the entire evening.

He complained of a sore throat, then congestion. The next day he had difficulty breathing and swallowing. At the time, bloodletting was used for many ailments with the idea of getting the “bad stuff” out. The first time of bloodletting took about a pint of Washington’s blood. Three doctors total took his blood, draining him of at least half the blood in his body. A tracheotomy was performed as a last effort but didn’t help. Washington died two days after his initial illness. He had asked that his body not be buried for three days, possibly due to a fear of being buried alive. He and his wife are interred at the crypt at Mount Vernon. An ex employee of the estate tried to steal Washington’s skull, so a better vault was built with the original body still inside the lead coffin but now placed inside and sealed within a marble sarcophagi.

washy death
Washington is on the right, Martha on the left.

John Adams

John Adams

John Adams served as overseas diplomat during the American Revolution, Vice President to George Washington, and the second President of the United States. So what happened after his public life ? His public life ended when he lost reelection as president.

Adams went home to his farm in Quincy, Massachusetts, called Peacefield, in 1801. He tried writing an autobiography but never finished it – perhaps he got bored. He focused on farming. He also faced some financial difficulties, having to sell off some of his properties.

Peacefield, home of the Adams’

At first he didn’t really keep in touch with his fellow revolutionaries. He and Jefferson, who had won the election for president, had a falling out over a disagreement of politics. And by falling out, I mean just refusing to answer each others letters for twelve years. Eventually, after the death of shared friends, the two rekindled their respect for each other and corresponded frequently until the ends of their lives. Jefferson still refused to discuss politics with Adams, kind of like that one relative you have to avoid the topic with so you can be in the same room together during grandmother’s birthday.

In 1818, Adams’ wife, Abigail, died of typhoid. His son, John Quincy, won the presidential election in 1824.

Fifty years after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams died at his home. He was 90 years old and the longest-lived US president until Ronald Reagan in 2001. Adams’ crypt is at the United First Pariah Church in Quincy, Massachusetts. His last words are said to have been, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Adams didn’t know that Jefferson had died several hours before…

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, from Madam Tussauds

The third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson retired in 1809 when he chose not to seek a third term. Jefferson stated that felt like, “a prisoner, released from his chains.”(1) I’m sure that’s how most retirees feel.

Jefferson remained very active in his retirement years, particularly in his support of education. He sold his books to the Library of Congress and founded and built the University of Virginia (he wanted a college free of church influence).

He settled into private life at Monticello. Jefferson spent his days rising early and answering letters. Midday he’d inspect his plantation on horseback. He and his family spent evenings in the garden. Finally, Jefferson would retire with a book from his long day. Somehow, even with his busy routine, he also wrote an autobiography.

Jefferson was heavily in debt (~$100,000) at the time of his death and worried he would have little to leave his heirs. He worked on ways to raise money to pass on to his heirs. Around June 1826, his health began to deteriorate. He suffered from rheumatism in his arm and wrist, in addition to intestinal and urinary difficulties (it’s the 1800s, let your mind run wild what all that could entail!)

By July 1826 Jefferson was confined to bed. Jefferson died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. He died only a few hours before his friend and rival, John Adams.

James Monroe

James Monroe

James Monroe, the fifth President of the United States, gets a mention because, like Adams and Jefferson, he died on July 4th.

After his retirement in 1825, he resided in Monroe Hills in Virginia. He struggled with debt and his wife’s poor health. After she died, he moves to New York. Monroe continues to be active in politics and advising.

By the 1820s, Monroe’s health began failing. He died on July 4, 1831, from heart failure and tuberculosis. He died on the 55th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, five years after the deaths of Adams and Jefferson.


Have a happy Fourth of July holiday! Be safe, watch your fingers, keep the fur babies inside!


  1. Tucker, George (1837). The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States; 2 vol. Carey, Lea & Blanchard.

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