Revolutionary “Last Words”

Condemned criminals sometimes dictated their last words to printers who published them as broadsides, such as this example from Worcester, Massachusetts in 1778. The black and white colors have been inverted from the original.

The last, dying words of many of history’s renowned figures were often inconsistently recorded. Those identified below from people who were famous during the Revolutionary War time period certainly demonstrate that fact.  While some can be relied upon for accuracy, the literature reveals that for others various additions and omissions took place over time, and some are probably entirely fabricated. The lack of certainty results in no lack of frustration for the researcher.

With that caveat, consider the following words and emotions attributed to each person, coming either directly from their lips or the observations of others in attendance, as they prepared to step over to the other side.

[Editor’s Note: Readers are welcome to provide additional last words, or better evidence of those presented here, which will be added to this article.]

 

Abigail Adams (October 28, 1818)

Spoken to John: “Do not grieve, my friend, my dearest friend.  I am ready to go.  And John, it will not be long.”[1]

 

John Adams (July 4, 1826)

Asked if he knew what day it was: “Oh, yes; it is the glorious Fourth of July.  God bless it.  God bless you all.”  He is reported to have later said, “Thomas Jefferson [unintelligible, with some arguing he added “lives”].”[2]

 

Samuel Adams (October 2, 1803)

From his Last Will and Testament: “Principally, and first of all, I recommend my soul to the Almighty Being who gave it, and my body I commit to the dust, relying on the merits of Jesus Christ for the pardon of my sins.”[3]

 

Ethan Allen (February 12, 1789)

After being told by an attending doctor, “General, I fear the angels are waiting for you.”: “Waiting are they? Waiting are they? Well, goddam ‘em, let ’em wait.”[4]

 

John Andre (October 2, 1780)

At the gallows “All I request of you, gentlemen, is that, while I acknowledge the propriety of my sentence, you will bear me witness that I die like a brave man.  It will be but a momentary pang.”[5]

 

Benedict Arnold (June 14, 1801)

“Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for ever having put on another.”[6]

 

Joseph Brant (November 24, 1807)

“Have pity on the poor Indians; if you can get any influence with the great, endeavor to do them all the good you can.”[7]

 

Aaron Burr (September 14, 1836)

“Madame.”[8]

 

George Rogers Clark (February 13, 1818)

“Come on my brave boys! St. Vin.”[9]

 

Benjamin Franklin, April 17, 1790

“A dying man can do nothing easy.”[10]

 

Horatio Gates (April 10, 1806)

No words recorded, but one observer writes, “He died in the full conviction of the truth of the Gospel Philosophy, and appeared pleased when it was recommended to his serious attention in the last stages of his illness.”[11]

 

Nathanael Greene (June 19, 1786)

No words recorded; he died quietly in the presence of Gen. Anthony Wayne, as the family also watched: “The sick man sank into a stupor for which science could do nothing.  Saturday and Sunday came and went and left no hope behind.  All through Sunday night Wayne watched by his bedside.  Towards dawn the heavy breathing grew fainter.  At six of Monday morning it ceased.”[12]

 

Nathan Hale (September 22, 1776)

The popular view is that, upon the gallows, Hale said, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”[13] But an eyewitness who wrote of Hale’s execution soon after it happened recorded no specific words, saying only that “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”[14]

 

Alexander Hamilton (July 12, 1804)

“God, be merciful to ———–“[15]

 

John Hancock (October 8, 1793)

“I shall look forward to a pleasant time.”[16]

 

Patrick Henry (June 6, 1799)

“Doctor, I wish you to observe how real and beneficial the religion of Christ is to a man about to die….I am, however, much consoled by reflecting that the religion of Christ has, from its first appearance in the world, been attacked in vain by all the wits, philosophers, and wise ones, aided by every power of man, and its triumphs have been complete.”[17]

 

John Jay (May 17, 1829)

As described by an observer: “… he retired to bed as well as usual, but in the course of the night was seized with palsy.  The disease affected his articulation, and almost entirely deprived him of the power of conversing.  It was evident, however, from the few sentences he succeeded in uttering, that his mind was unimpaired by the shock.”[18]

 

Thomas Jefferson (July 4, 1826)

“I have done for my country, and for all mankind, all that I could do, and I now resign my soul, without fear, to my God, – my daughter to my country.”  Followed shortly afterwards by, “Nunc Dimittas, Domine – Nunc Dimittas, Domine.”[19]  Another report relates his words as “This is the Fourth?”[20]

 

Henry Knox (October 25, 1806)

No words recorded. His death was “occasioned by his having swallowed a chicken bone, which caused a mortification and was from its nature incurable.”[21]

 

John Laurens (August 27, 1782)

“Charge!”[22]

 

Charles Lee (October 2, 1782)

“Stand by me my brave grenadiers.”[23]

 

Henry “Light Horse” Lee (March 25, 1818)

No words recorded. He died quietly on Cumberland Island, Georgia, “while the waters of Cumberland Sound and Atlantic Ocean chanted his funeral dirge, wafted by the breezes of the orange groves.”[24]

 

James Madison (June 28, 1836)

“I always talk better lying down.”[25]

 

Francis Marion (February 27, 1795)

“Thank God since I came to man’s estate, I have never intentionally done wrong to anyone.”[26]

 

John Marshall (July 6, 1835)

No words recorded, but a witness writes: “It may be consoling to his friends to learn that, as his weakness increased, his sufferings diminished, and that he expired apparently without a pang.  To the last moment of his existence, he retained the faculties of his mind, and met his fate with the fortitude of a Philosopher, and the resignation of a Christian.”[27]

 

James Monroe (July 4, 1831)

“I regret that I should leave this world without again beholding him” – referring to James Madison[28]

 

Richard Montgomery (December 31, 1775)

“What news from Boston?”[29]

 

Daniel Morgan (July 6, 1802)

As his end neared and upon being advised by his physician to settle his affairs, he replied: “Doctor, if I could be the man I was when I was 21 years of age [1757], I would be willing to be stripped stark naked on the top of the Alleghany Mountains to run for my life with the hounds of hell at my heels.”[30]

 

Gouverneur Morris (November 6, 1816)

When told that the weather was fair on the day of his death: “A beautiful day, yes, but,
Who, to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing, anxious being e’er resign’d:
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?[31]

 

Thomas Paine (June 8, 1809)

“I would give worlds, if I had them, if The Age of Reason had never been published.  Stay with me, for God’s sake, for I cannot bear to be left alone!  Send even a child to stay with me.”[32]

 

Israel Putnam (May 29, 1790)

No specific words noted, but his minister related that: “In the decline of life he publicly professed the religion of the Gospel … [and] died hopefully a Christian.”[33]

 

Benjamin Rush (April 19, 1813)

“I will not abandon the post which Providence has assigned me; I think it my duty not only to sacrifice my pleasure and repose, but my life, should it be necessary, for the safety of my patients.”[34]

 

Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (November 28, 1794)

“Don’t be alarmed, my son.”[35]

 

Joseph Warren (June 17, 1775)

“I am a dead man: fight on, my brave fellows, for the salvation of your country.”[36]

 

George Washington (December 14, 1799)

“I feel myself going; I thank you for your attentions; but I pray you to take no more trouble about me.  Let me go off quietly.  I cannot last long.”  After a short while: “I am just going.  Have me decently buried and do not let my body be put into the vault in less than three days after I am dead.”  His secretary, Tobias Lear, to whom these words were addressed, was so affected that he could not speak a reply, but nodded his assent. “Do you understand me?,” he asked. “Yes,” replied Lear, to which Washington uttered: “’Tis well.”[37]

 

[1] Barnaby Conrad, Famous Last Words (New York: Doubleday, 1961), 26.

[2] Portrait and Biographical Album of Newayco County, Mich. Containing Portraits and Biographical Sketches of Prominent and Representative Citizens of the County, together with Portraits and Biographies of all the Governors of Michigan and the Presidents of the United States (Chicago: Chapman Brothers, 1884), 24.

[3] Ira Stoll, Samuel Adams: A Life (New York: Free Press, 2008), unnumbered page.

[4] Allen Axelrod, The Real History of the American Revolution: A New Look at the Past (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2007), 114.

[5] Benson J. Lossing, The Two Spies: Nathan Hale and John André (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903), 105.

[6] Clifton Johnson, The Picturesque Hudson (New York: Macmillan Company, 1915).

[7] Thomas L. McKenney, History of the Indian Tribes of North America (Philadelphia: D. Rice & Co., 1874), 152.

[8] J. Parton, Life and Times of Aaron Burr (New York: Mason Brothers, 1858), 681-682.

[9] William R. Nester, George Rogers Clark: “I Glory in War,” (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012), 323.

[10] Henry Hupfeld, Encyclopædia of Wit and Wisdom (Philadelphia: David McKay, 1877), 288.

[11] The New England Historical & Genealogical Register … for the year 1867, vol. 21 (Boston: By the Society, 1867), 254.

[12] George Washington Greene, The Life of Nathaneal Greene, vol. 3 (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1871), 533-534.

[13] Lossing, Two Spies, 23.

[14] Frederick Mackenzie, The Diary of Frederick MacKenzie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 62.

[15] The Christian Observer … for the year 1805 (London: C. Whittingham, 1805), 233.

[16] W.H. Venable, John Hancock, Ph.D.: A Memoir, with Selections from his Writings (Cincinnati: C.B. Ruggles & Co., 1892), 78.

[17] William J. Federer, America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations (St. Louis: Amerisearch, 2000), 290.

[18] William Jay, The Life of John Jay (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), 459.

[19] B.L. Raynor, Life of Thomas Jefferson (Boston: Lilly, Wait, Colman & Holden, 1834), 429.

[20] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858).

[21] Francis S. Drake, Memoir and Correspondence of Henry Knox (Boston: Samuel G. Drake, 1873), 118.

[22] Greene, The Life of Nathaneal Greene, 444.

[23] James Thatcher, A Military Journal during the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783  (Boston: Cottons & Barnard, 1827), 455.

[24] Eliza Olver Denniston, Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine, vol. 43 (New York: The National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, 1913), 558.

[25] George Derby, A Conspectus of American Biography (New York: James T. White & Company, 1906), 276.

[26] Transactions of the New York State Agricultural Society, vol. 21 (Albany: Charles Van Benthuysen, 1862), 286.

[27] Charles F. Hobson, ed., The Papers of John Marshall, vol. 12 (Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 491.

[28] James Egan, 1,000 Facts about American Presidents (Lulu Publishing, 2015), 32.

[29] Theatrum Majorum. The Cambridge of 1776 (Cambridge: Lockwood Brooks and Company, 1876), 37.

[30] David Holmes, “Early History of Winchester,” Annual Papers of Winchester, Virginia, Historical Society, vol. 1 (Windhcester: 1931), 171-172

[31] Frederic Rowland Martin, The Last Words (Real and Traditional) of Distinguished Men and Women (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1902), 200.

[32] Elias Smith, ed., The Herald of Gospel Liberty, vol. 110, nos. 27-52 (Dayton: The Christian Publishing Association), 1118.

[33] Theodore Dwight, ed., Dwight’s American Magazine and Family Newspaper, vol. 1 (New York: 1845), 462.

[34] Meredity Clymer, The Annual Oration Delivered before the Society of the Alumni of the Medical Department of the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Collins, 1876), 13.

[35] Friedrich Kapp, The Life of Frederick William von Steuben: Major General in the Revolutionary Army (New York: Mason Brothers, 1859), 599.

[36] Richard Frothingham, Life and Times of Joseph Warren (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1865), 519.

[37] The Literary Gazette; and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c. for the year 1838 (London: James Moyes, 1838), 819.

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13 Comments

  • When I was about thirteen I was at Monticello and confidently told my father that Thomas Jefferson (or was it John Adams?) died when he heard that John Adams (or was it Thomas Jefferson?) was dead. My dad said, “How did he hear about it the same day?”

  • As I recall, Adams on his deathbed said something to the effect, “Jefferson lives.”‘ Then he died. Actually, Jefferson had died before Adams, which Adams couldn’t have known. Both died in 1826, on July 4th!

  • Gary, I realize after posting my reply on Adams/Jefferson’s last words that you had covered Adams’ last words in your article…I didn’t go back and reread it before my post. Sorry! As to Paine’s last words, I’ve got my doubts. That sounds like wishful thinking on the part of the clergy, who tried to get Paine to repent at the end of his life. He shooed them all away and refused to do so, as far as I know.

    • Thanks, Jett. Any and all revisions, corrections, etc. are certainly welcome. I just went with what was out there knowing that the accounts of these passings are potentially fraught with error. On Paine, there are other reports that track the one I described, but cannot necessarily say they are consistent with the reporters being members of the clergy. Thank you for your interest.

  • Thank you, Gary. As to Paine, it’s interesting to note a letter James Cheetham sent to Benjamin Rush about Paine’s final religious beliefs: “As to the reports, that on his deathbed he had something like compunctious visiting so far conscience with regard to his deistical writings and opinions, they are all together groundless. He resisted very angrily, and with a sort of triumphant and obstinate pride, all attempts to draw him from those doctrines.” (Quoted in Craig Nelson’s biography, Thomas Paine).

    Cheetham’s bio of Paine, Life of Thomas Paine, written in the same year Paine died, was an attempt to bury Paine’s legacy along with the man, a hatchet job most agree. Yet that “strange, often informative book,” as David Hackett Fischer calls it, did likely have some accurate descriptions of Paine and his life here and there. Perhaps the description of Paine’s last days in Cheetham’s letter to Rush is one of these.

  • Oops, I mistyped the first line of Cheetham’s quote in my reply below. It should read: “As to the reports, that on his deathbed he had something like compunctious visitings of conscience….” The auto-type did something to my earlier attempt. Thanks.

  • Last words of any general in the Revolution would have been Lafayette’s. Lafayette’s last recorded words from Jules Cloquet’s “Recollections of the Private Life of General Lafayette” seem to have been “You will tell the good Princess de Belgiojoso how grateful I feel for her visits, and how much I suffer at being deprived of them.” His wife’s last words are more famous: ”Je suis toute à vous” (”I am yours alone”).

    Last words of any American general would have been Thomas Sumter’s. Did any records of Sumter’s last words survive? Bass’s biography only mentions that shortly before he died, he “complained of being tired.” Perhaps his last words were along the lines of “I feel tired.” He was in his late 90s.

  • Benjamin Rush’s last words are frequently mis-identified. Most earlier biographies rely on a letter from his son James, who records Rush’s last words to him as if they were his last words. and the 1876 source here is also incorrect. a wonderful long letter from Julia Stockton Rush to Abigail Adams gives us the fullest description of Rush’s last months, including his last words, which she reports to have been “By the Mystery of thy holy incarnation, by thy holy nativity and c[i]rcumsision; by thy baptism fasting and temptation, by thine agony and bloody sweat, by thy cross and passion, by thy precious death and burial, by thy glorious resurection and assension, and by the coming of the holy ghost, blessed Jesus wash me from the defilements of sin and receive me into thy everlasting arms.” This is from the letter June 23, 1813 https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-2314

  • The quote listed above for Richard Montgomery is actually attributed to Robert R. Livingston, Sr. in the source. The cited source is also not a reliable primary document, see: https://www.massar.org/2012/05/27/extracts-from-the-diary-of-dorothy-dudley/

    Regarding General Montgomery’s dying words, there do not appear to be any direct first-hand quotes from his death at the Battle of Quebec City, but Major Henry Dearborn, who was fighting at the opposite end of the Lower Town at the time, recorded that Montgomery said “come on my good soldiers, your Gen[era]l calls upon you to Come on,” before dying instantly from a grape shot blast (not a “bullet in the neck” as sung in Hamilton-The Musical). [Dearborn, Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn in the Quebec Expedition, 1775, 21]

    Another indirect account, seemingly undocumented until 1833, implies that eyewitness Aaron Burr remembered the general last saying “We shall be in the fort in two minutes.” [Diary of William Dunlap, Volume 3, 737]

  • Glad you commented on Montgomery’s last words Mark. The reference in the article is not a reliable source.

    Since the Dearborn journal was written well after the death of Montgomery, one wonders how reliable the quote is. Dearborn’s original journal I found in the University of Glasgow Library does not have this quote. Not too sure I have much confidence in Dunlap’s Diary quoting Aaron Burr either.

    Perhaps Montgomery’s last words should be his alone and not for the world.

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