Mourning in response to George Washington's death on December 14, 1799 reflected contemporary public and private traditions of the time period and served as a catalyst for Americans from diverse backgrounds to unite. Because Washington's passing occurred close to the turn of the nineteenth century, many perceived this death as an omen or crisis.
Political leaders utilized the mourning process to spawn the first recognizable steps towards creating a sense of national unity during a time of shared sorrow. Washington's birthday, which had been observed with banquets and public celebrations during his lifetime, became the culmination of a sixty-nine day period of public mourning. As a result, February 22, 1800 became a shared point of reference for commemorating Washington's life.
Mourners assembled at Mount Vernon to attend the family-organized funeral and internment on December 18, 1799. Washington's body lay in the long portico, in a coffin that featured silver-plate ornament at the head inscribed, "SURGE AD JUDICIUM," (rise to judgement) with another mid-point inscribed with "GLORIA DEO." (glory to God)
Josiah Bartlett, a fellow Mason, chronicled the funeral, explaining that the Alexandria Band played the "Funeral Dirge" by I. Decker. Bartlett as well as other Masonic brethren and military officers served as pallbearers. The coffin bore Washington's sword and Masonic apron. Washington's horse was lead by two servants dressed in mourning clothes. As Washington was interred, "Every one was affected, but none so much as his domestics of all ages."1
Mount Vernon became the first tourist destination for Americans paying homage to Washington. Historian and geographer Emma Willard argued that every patriotic American should visit Mount Vernon, "in mournful, filial pilgrimage."2 As was the custom, Martha Washington closed off the master bedroom and settled into a smaller bedchamber on the third floor. Letters of condolence first came from women closest to the widow, including First Lady Abigail Adams, Mara S. Ross, Elizabeth Willing Powell, and Mary White Morris.
The Congress, in session at the capital of Philadelphia when Washington's death was announced, immediately adjourned. The House of Representatives assembled the next day and resolved to shroud the Speaker's chair in black and have members wear black during the remainder of the session. On December 23, John Marshall speaking for the joint committee of both houses, presented five points that became the foundation for the United States' first "state" funeral. Resolutions structured mourning events around public commemorations that fostered unity and a sense of national identity among grieving Americans.
The Congress proposed a plan to erect a monument in marble in the nation's future capital city of Washington, as well as to organize a funeral procession through the streets of the current national capital of Philadelphia. The procession was to stretch from Congress Hall to the German Lutheran Church where an oration would be delivered by close Washington protégé Henry Lee. Congress also agreed to publish a presidential proclamation of the period of wearing black crape armbands on left arms for thirty days to demonstrate grief, as well as to communicate condolences to Martha Washington and ask the widow for permission to entomb Washington's body in the proposed national monument.
Lee drafted a letter expressing symbolic condolences to President Adams. The letter conveyed the deep sense of the magnitude of the government's shared loss, and their resignation to bow in honor of Washington: "This event, so distressing to all our fellow citizens, must be particularly heavy to you, who have long been associated with him in deeds and patriotism. Permit us, Sir, to mingle our tears with yours. On this occasion, it is manly to weep."3
The Congress shaped a plan for funeral honors by which Washington was to be commemorated by the whole government, with "a solemn and august pageantry." Adams's response, published in newspapers throughout the country on December 21, 1799, stated, "I receive with great respect and affection the condolence of the House of Representatives on the melancholy and afflicting event in the death of the most illustrious and beloved personage which this country ever produced. I sympathize with you—with the nation—and with the good men throughout the world, in this irreparable loss sustained by us all." The national funeral procession in Philadelphia commenced at noon on December 26, 1799. Soldiers fired minute guns for one hour under the direction of Brigadier General William Macpherson. Tolling church bells mingled with the gunfire as musicians performed George Frederick Handel's "Dead March," with the sounds of fifes, muffled drums, and wind instruments.
A mounted trumpeter led the procession that traveled from the Legislative Hall, down Walnut Street to Fourth, continuing along Chestnut, Market, and Arch Street to the German Lutheran Church. Two troops of horses carrying flags of mourning followed. Macpherson and staff rode with senior officers of the federal battalion of cavalry, infantry, and artillery stationed in Philadelphia, along with volunteer companies, and militia in a visible sign of military unity, designed to reflect the Federalist hierarchy.4
Congress selected Lee to deliver the national eulogy for Washington. Mourning rituals stretched throughout all walks of life. The magnitude of the occasion led local businessmen to close establishments to participate in commemorations. Army Major General Alexander Hamilton choreographed mock funerals to demonstrate military might during a time of peace at military posts. Freemasons and Revolutionary War veterans in the Society of Cincinnati participated in community-organized events in a process that fostered the building of historic memory.
Reference Specialist, Special Collections Department
J. Paul Leonard Library, San Francisco State University
Kahler, Gerald. The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia.
Morse, Jedidiah, and Josiah Bartlett. A Prayer and Sermon Delivered at Charlestown, December 31, 1799; on the Death of George Washington. Charleston, MA.: Samuel Etheridge, 1800.
Russell, Benjamin. Columbian Centennial and Massachusetts Federalist, 28 December 1799. Boston: B. Russell.
Taylor, C. B. A Universal History of the United States of America. New York: Erza Strong, 1836.
U. S. Senate. Senate Journal, 6th Congress, 1st Sess, 23 December 1799. Washington, D.C.: Gales & Seaton, 1821.
Willard, Emma. History of the United States. New York: White, Gallaher & White, 1829.