After George Washington died on the evening of December 14, 1799, news spread slowly from Mount Vernon to the rest of the young republic. However, once people heard the surprising news, they expressed their grief and gratitude in over 400 mourning ceremonies from the time of Washington’s death until February 22, 1800, Congress’s designated national day of mourning. During many of these occasions for sorrow, persons from all walks of life delivered eulogies in Washington’s honor. Prominent politicians, ministers, slaves and women contributed to the national grieving process through their eulogies.
Before the time of instant mass communication capabilities, news of Washington’s death spread slowly, but steadily, primarily through the circulation of newspaper accounts of his death. Oftentimes, the same account was reprinted in newspaper after newspaper (much like how an article from the Associated Press is reused today). It took four days for Philadelphia to receive news of Washington’s death. In contrast, the frontier capital Frankfort, Kentucky, did not hear the grim news until January 9, 1800.
Once everyone heard about the death of their beloved Washington, it was almost automatic that people would want to hold solemn ceremonies in his honor. Over four hundred such events took place after his death until the national day of mourning for Washington that occurred on his birthday, February 22. The idea for a national day of mourning came from close friend of Washington and future Supreme Court justice John Marshall in the form of a resolution that he proposed before Congress on December 30, 1799. (The resolution passed the same day).
An important component in many of these ceremonies was the giving of a eulogy. From the Greek term meaning a “good word” or “praise,” eulogies seek to praise the character and accomplishments of an individual oftentimes after his or her death. Perhaps the most well-known and often-quoted eulogy was performed by Henry Lee, another close friend of Washington, who was a former soldier under Washington and recently elected to congress. On December 26, 1799, in the German Lutheran Church in Philadelphia, he gave a rousing eulogy that invited his listeners to travel with him through time to various battlefields and encampment sites associated with Washington: Monongahela, Morristown, and Brandywine Creek, among others. He also traced the accomplishments of Washington as a consummate statesman. Feeling the nation’s pulse, Lee exultantly declared that Washington was “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen . . . his example was as edifying to all around him as were the effects of that example lasting.”1
In addition to prominent politicians, some socially marginalized voices praised Washington to their hearers. For instance, former slave and co-founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Reverend Richard Allen, delivered a eulogy in Philadelphia on December 29, 1799. Rather than reciting all of Washington’s accomplishments, he focused upon an act of Washington’s that resonated with his African American audience: Washington desiring to free his slaves through his will. In Allen’s opinion, Washington “to us he has been the sympathizing friend and tender father. He has watched over us, and viewed our degraded and afflicted state with compassion and pity--his heart was not insensible to our sufferings.”2 Since Washington cared about the inferior status of blacks in the Early Republic, the congregation should care about being good citizens. They should follow Washington’s exhortations from his farewell address “to love your country--to obey its laws--to seek its peace--and to keep yourselves from attachment to any foreign nation.”3 To Allen and his community, Washington meant so much to them, but in ways very different from the audience of politicians at Lee’s eulogy of Washington.
Jacob Hicks, Ph.D. Candidate
Florida State University
1. Henry Lee, A Funeral Oration in Honor of the Memory of George Washington, Late General of the Armies of the United States (New Haven: Read and Morse, 1800), 19-20.
2. Richard Allen, "Eulogy of George Washington," The Philadelphia Gazette and Universal Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia, PA), December 31, 1799.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
Kahler, Gerald E. The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008.