Thursday, May 22, 2008

Famous Last Words

Deathbed utterances reveal a lot about a person. Legend has it that when the Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen was close to the end, an attending physician tried to give comfort. “General Allen, the angels are waiting for you,” the doctor offered. Known for his fiery iconoclasm, Allen snorted, “Waiting are they?“God damn ‘em, let ‘em wait!”

What of other revolutionary founders? Were their thoughts focused on psalms or other traditional consolations of religion? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both expired, famously, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Their minds were occupied less with cherub choirs than with the role they’d shared in winning America’s liberty. “This is the Fourth?” Jefferson asked, in a state of semi-consciousness. Far north of Monticello, John Adams was also slipping from the world with the words, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” not knowing his old friend had expired just a few hours earlier.

Ten years later, in 1836, James Madison was close to death. Encouraged to hang on a few more days to make a glorious exit like Adams and Jefferson (and like President James Monroe, a Revolutionary War hero who had died on July 4, 1831), Madison refused the stimulants that might have prolonged his life, preferring to depart on his own schedule. At breakfast, his niece noticed him looking rather odd and asking if anything was the matter. “Nothing but a change of mind, my dear,” and he was gone.

George Washington died a rather painful death, slowly asphyxiated by an acute inflammation of the airways. “I die hard,” he told his doctors, “but I am not afraid to go.” His longtime secretary and companion Tobias Lear, who was at his side, expressed the wish that the two of them might meet in heaven one day, but Lear was too honest a reporter to suggest that the General reciprocated the hope for reunion in the hereafter. Harboring a morbid and irrational fear that he might be put into the earth prematurely, Washington instructed, “Have me decently buried, and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead. Do you understand?" "Yes, sir," the doctor replied. Then came Washington’s parting words: "'Tis well.” Practical to the end.

Ben Franklin had his daughter Sarah nearby. When she remarked that he looked uncomfortable, lying on his side, the old patriarch responded, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Years before, as a young man, he had penned his own epitaph:

The body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an Old Book
Its Contents torn Out
And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies Here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be Lost;
For it will (as he Believ'd) Appear once More
In a New and More Elegant Edition
Revised and Corrected
By the Author.

The words expressed the gentle irony with which Franklin faced many questions of faith. He and America’s other founders confronted death calmly and matter-of-factly. None were dogmatic (or very certain) about whatever mystery might come next.

While our Founders had varied beliefs about immortality, their energies centered on this world. Wherever else they might survive, they live on in the institutions and ideals they passed dow

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