The Death of Washington and the Conception of Presidents’ Day

by M-Gillies

Portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart painted two years before Washington died in 1899.

“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… Correct throughout, vice shuddered in his presence and virtue always felt his fostering hand. The purity of his private character gave effulgence to his public virtues… Such was the man for whom our nation mourns.”

Those were the words given by Henry Light-Horse Harry Lee, delivered in the eulogy he gave to George Washington on behalf of the nation on December 26, 1799 — twelve days after Washington’s death. When news of his death made its way around the world, the man regarded as The Father of His Country, left not just an entire nation in mourning, but shocked many in Europe.

In commemoration of the first President of the United States of America and commander-in-chief of the army who defeated England, mock funerals took place over a period of seven weeks. Napoleon Bonaparte of France gave a personal eulogy and further ordered a ten day requiem. The Kingdom of Great Britain lowered their flags to half-mast across the entire Royal Navy.

The mourning response to Washington’s death was one that reflected contemporary public and private traditions of the time period, but with his death occurring so close to the turn of the nineteenth century, and with the French Revolutionary War still in full-force (despite Washington having proclaimed America neutral), many perceived his death as an omen.

When the announcement of Washington’s death reached the capital of Philadelphia (the nation’s temporary capital while the new federal city was being constructed), Congress immediately adjourned their session. Returning the next day, the House of Representatives assembled adorning black attire and further shrouded the Speaker’s chair in black. By December 23, speaking for the joint committee of both houses, House Representative, John Marshall initiated what would become the foundation for the United States’ first state funeral through a resolution of structured mourning events around public commemorations that fostered unity and a sense of national identity among grieving Americans.

With mock funerals being held across the country and Congress soon proposing a plan to erect a monument in marble in the nation’s future capital city of Washington. However, perhaps the most memorable of mock funerals took place on December 26, when Congress arranged a funeral procession through the streets of Philadelphia.

Attended by over 4,000 mourners, the procession travelled from Congress Hall to the German Lutheran Church, where an oration would be delivered by Washington’s protege Henry Lee, Jr.

Chronicling his funeral, fellow Mason, Josiah Bartlett, who along with other Masonic brethren and military officers, served as pallbearers. The coffin bore Washington’s sword and Masonic apron. Washington’s horse was led by two servants dressed in mourning clothes. But as he was interred, Bartlett noted, “Everyone was affected, but none so much as his domestics of all ages.”

To further demonstrate grief, Congress published a presidential proclamation of wearing black crepe armbands on left arms for thirty days.

While Washington had previously stated in his last will and testament that he wanted only a small and private sendoff, he was so beloved by the country, he was given the second state funeral in America, the first being for Benjamin Franklin.

Meanwhile, unlike the mock funeral organized by Congress, Washington’s actual funeral was a relatively smaller affair, as he had wished. His Masonic lodge prepared the sendoff, where mourners were advised to arrive “Wednesday, at Mount Vernon, at twelve o’clock, if fair, or on Thursday at the same hour.”

That Wednesday, December 18, 1799, the Masons arrived at Mount Vernon and held a formal procession, which included soldiers on foot and horseback, with Washington’s horse bearing the traditional empty saddle. Meanwhile, Washington was interred in a humble red-brick tomb on a hillside surrounded by the members of the procession. The traditional Masonic funeral rites were performed by Lodge members Rev. James Muir, minister of the Alexandria Presbyterian Church and Dr. Elisha Dick, with a final viewing taking place before Washington’s body was placed in his tomb for the rest of eternity.

Though said to have led a private Washington’s birthday, which had been observed with banquets and public celebrations during his lifetime, became the culmination of a forty-nine day period of public mourning. As a result, February 22, 1800, became a shared point of reference for commemorating Washington’s life and that of Presidents’ Day.




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