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Pilgrimages to Washington's Tomb

Pilgrims from across the country converged on Mount Vernon during the early nineteenth century intent on feeling the aura of America's first national hero. Visitors frequently called upon Bushrod Washington, the owner of the estate, for both tours and anecdotes about the general's service, achievements, and daily activities. If Bushrod was available, he entertained "respectable" pilgrims with stories, offering his own interpretation of his uncle's greatness. After hearing these tales, pilgrims were directed to the family vault to pay their respects through prayer, reflection, and moments of silence. Many pilgrims, overwhelmed with emotion, wept in the presence of Washington's remains. The tomb also became a site of controversy, as the poor appearance of the vault prompted pilgrims to lobby government representatives for proper monument construction.1

Bushrod Washington, engraved by James Barton Longacre, c. 1830.

Thomas Pim Cope, a Federalist merchant and Pennsylvania Assembly member from Philadelphia, made the pilgrimage to Mount Vernon in the spring of 1802. In his travel diary, Cope detailed the furniture, paintings, and relics of the mansion, including the Key to the Bastille, a gift from the Marquis de Lafayette. Cope walked down to the family tomb and described his companions' reactions. "One [man] placed himself on the green turf and mused, with his head resting on his arms. Another stood alone among the thicket with folded arms and downcast eyes. A third reclined against a tree and wept…there was nothing artificial in this, nothing premeditated." Cope believed that it was the "effect of the nature and the offspring of the moment" that stirred such patriotic, emotional responses, and that the trip brought "melancholy satisfaction" knowing that "these very grounds [Washington] trod ten thousand times before me, and that it still contained the cold remains of that matchless man."2

Tomb of Washington, August 4, 1817, artist believed to be Rubens Peale.

Veterans of the American Revolution, many of whom also fought in the War of 1812, connected deeply to Washington through the pilgrimage. These pilgrims shared fraternal memories of war and independence, describing their experiences and reflections of the man who led them against the British. Many visitors found the state of the tomb unacceptable for their commander. One man, writing under the pseudonym "Spirit of Seventy Six," expected to "behold his country's gratitude portrayed in towering brass or marble." Instead he asked the question, "If it is here, that my countrymen have buried my General, where, in the name of God, would they bury me?"

A few years later, Major John Reid visited Mount Vernon, which he described as "a spot rendered sacred to every American bosom." Reid was appalled to find the tomb in such disrepair, describing the tomb as "Ill constructed and overgrown with shrubbery," and that Washington’s sacred remains "have been permitted to molder in the dark narrow cell where they were at first deposited." Reid believed that Washington's family was offended by government inaction, and proclaimed that "When Washington is forgotten, who of thy Sons can ever hope to be remembered!" Both "Spirit" and Reid's views reflected a growing sentiment against both the country’s poor treatment of veterans and the failure of the country to properly memorialize its greatest citizen-solider.3

Foreigner visitors also journeyed to the tomb and their negative experiences amplified calls to improve the commemoration of Washington. An English traveler portrayed the tomb as being "A low, obscure, ice house looking brick vault," which "testifies how well a Nation's gratitude repays the soldier's toils, the statesman's labors, the patriot's virtue, and the father's cares." It was "not the house, the garden, the oak, the mound" that made the visitor breathless, but the presence of the "Chief, the Warrior, the Patriot." The visitor concluded by pointing out that "these are the feelings of an Englishman—what should I feel were I an American?" A French visitor to Mount Vernon criticized Americans and their unwillingness to embrace the bodies of their national heroes. "Americans pay less attention generally to the depositories of their dead than almost any other nation: they seem to be no sooner laid in the earth than they are forgotten."

Nonetheless, Mount Vernon remained an important pilgrimage site. The same French visitor believed that Mount Vernon had become, "like Jerusalem and Mecca, the resort of the travelers of all nations who come within its vicinity." Visitors were filled with "veneration and respect," leading them "to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of patriotism and public worth, and to stroll over the ground which has been hallowed by the ashes of heroism and virtue." The traveler also mentioned that pilgrims were taking objects from the site, noting that "A twig, a flower, or even a stone becomes interesting when taken from the spot where Washington lived and died and no man quits it without bearing with him some memento to exhibit to his family and his friends." The removal of relics from around the tomb allowed pilgrims to imbue their own sacredness, share their personal memory with others, and possess a tangible link to the great Washington.4

The taking of relics was quickly incorporated into the pilgrimage ritual for both Americans and foreigners. One American pilgrim took "from the surface of the tomb a flower" and reminisced that "it was emblematical of the man." He also noted that he "never will forget the sensation it occasioned." Nathaniel Carter, editor of the New York Statesman, took "a branch or two of cedar, growing on the summit of the mound, which with a sprig of mountain laurel, a few flowers presented by the gardener. . .[these] will be carried home with me as relics."

On one excursion to Mount Vernon the Russian Minister to the United States, mimicking the practice of American pilgrims, took a branch from a tree growing over the tomb, and planned to give it to Russian Emperor Alexander I. A pilgrim in 1824 observed that "the cedars are nearly stripped of their green boughs by the great number of visitors, who pluck them and carry them away as mementos." This ritual allowed pilgrims to share their individual experiences with others by infusing the relics with their personal memories of Washington. The growing community of believers transformed these otherwise ordinary pieces of nature into tangible pieces of Washington's memory.5

Matthew Costello
Marquette University

Notes
1.
Pilgrims continuously criticized the Washington family and public officials for not giving Washington a proper tomb. The newer brick mausoleum was constructed in 1830-1, and these criticisms subsided.

2. "31 December 1807," The Boston Gazette; "The Diary of Thomas Pim Cope," in Experiencing Mount Vernon:  Eyewitness Accounts, 1784-1865, ed. Jean B. Lee (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 95-102.

3. "25 May 1812," Boston Commercial Gazette; "29 May 1812," Rhode Island American; "22 September 1812," Independent American; "26 January 1818," City of Washington Gazette; "27 February 1818," New-York Daily Advertiser.

4. "22 September 1818," American Beacon and Norfolk Daily Advertiser; "30 May 1818," The National Register; "5 June 1818," American Beacon.

5. "14 January 1820," Poulson's American Daily Advertiser; "24 March 1820," Agricultural Intelligencer; "10 August 1820," Providence Gazette; "18 January 1823," Essex Register; "20 February 1823," North Star; "28 July 1819," City of Washington Gazette; "7 August 1819," The National Recorder; "21 September 1824," Salem Gazette.