Many people saddened by Washington's death took to pens as they sought to cope with their grief.
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"First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen." These famous words about George Washington come from a eulogy written by Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee. Lee was a major general in the Continental Army, member of the Continental Congress, governor of Virginia, father of the famous Civil War general Robert E. Lee, and close friend of George Washington.
Following Washington’s death on December 14, 1799, the Sixth Congress commissioned Lee, his brother in arms, to write a moving eulogy. Congress was unanimous in choosing Lee for the task, believing he was best suited to express “those sentiments of respect for the character, of the gratitude for the service, and of grief for the death of that illustrious personage.”1
He indeed proved an ideal choice due to his long-standing relationship with Washington. Lee first attracted the attention of Washington when he joined the Continental Army as captain of the fifth group of Virginia Light Dragoons during the Revolutionary War. Washington quickly promoted the young captain through the ranks. The men had much in common. They were both accomplished horsemen from Virginia, and each resigned his commission after the war to return to his home and family. Washington and Lee remained friends after the war. The men visited one another, shared information about their plantations, traded land in exchange for horses and comforted one another during hard times. Lee also gifted Washington with barley, black eye peas, and boxwood shrubs for his beloved gardens. Their friendship also extended to their wives with Martha Washington sending well wishes and extending invitations to Henry Lee and his wife, Matilda Ludwell Lee, to visit Mount Vernon.
Lee wrote the eulogy in Philadelphia while staying at Franklin Court, the former home of Benjamin Franklin, which had been converted into a boarding house. The completed eulogy was presented to Congress on December 28, 1799. Although Lee was unable to attend the congressional session, a member of Congress delivered the eulogy in his place. The renowned quote appears shortly before the conclusion of Lee’s 3,500 word eulogy in a longer passage extolling Washington’s contributions to the nation: “First in war- first in peace- and first in the hearts of his countrymen, he was second to none in the humble and endearing scenes of private life; pious, just, humane, temperate and sincere; uniform, dignified and commanding, his example was as edifying to all around him, as were the effects of that example lasting.”2
The American people grieved deeply at Washington’s death, sparking the production of an array of Washington-related items. Funeral ribbons, pins, buttons, coffin reproductions as well as various printed items, such as pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, and sermons, all became popular. Lee’s full eulogy appeared in pamphlet form and his famous phrase was widely reprinted in a variety of mediums.3 The popularity of the eulogy has led many authors, historians, and biographers to quote it in their work. In his Life of George Washington, John Marshall recorded Lee’s eulogy as, “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his fellow-citizens.”4
George Washington University
Boyd, Thomas. Light-horse Harry Lee. New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1931.
Gerson, Noel B. Light-Horse Harry; a Biography of Washington's Great Cavalryman, General Henry Lee. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1966.
Lee, Henry, and Robert E. Lee. The Revolutionary War Memoirs of General Henry Lee. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
"Light Horse Harry Lee." Stratford Hall. Accessed March 13, 2015. http://www.stratfordhall.org/meet-the-lee-family/henry-lee-iii/.
Marshall, John. The Life of George Washington. Vol. 5. London: Richard Phillips, 1807. Pgs 653-655.
Memoirs of Robert E. Lee, His Military and Personal History, Embracing a Large Amount of Information Hitherto Unpublished, edited by Marcus J. Wright. New York, Philadelphia and Washington: J.M Stoddart & Company.
Platt, John. Franklin's House Historic Structures Report Historical Data Section. U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service Division of History Office of Archeology and Historic Preservationz. Pg 106. (http://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/inde/hsr1/preface.htm)