When George Washington Died | How a Young Nation Mourned
George Washington on his deathbed in December, 1799.
Junius Brutus Stearns/Dayton Art Institute
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General Washington is Dead!
February 18, 2022
When George Washington died suddenly at the age of 67, the news of his death spread with remarkable speed across a nation of 16 states not yet united by rail or telegraph. The young country had lost its father. Here’s the incredibly moving way Americans mourned their most beloved Founding Father across the nation.
The word was carried by Methodist circuit riders and burly wagon masters, stagecoach passengers and post riders, and deckhands on coastal schooners. Everywhere, it had an electrifying impact, binding the republic in shock, grief, and mourning. In Boston, Russell’s Gazette called the news “agonizing.”
How George Washington Died
Washington died at Mount Vernon on Saturday, December 14, 1799, at 10:20 in the evening. According to his secretary’s letter to Congress, written the following day, the former president’s illness was short, and the cause of his death was “an inflammatory sore throat, which proceeded from a cold of which he made but little complaint Friday.” Historians now believe that it was either a raging pneumonia or a strep infection.
Washington had gone to check around his property the days prior in terribly cold, rainy weather and returned to find his home deluged again with visitors who wanted to meet the first president. He didn’t have an opportunity to change out of wet clothes and ended up getting congested with a sore throat. The doctors bled him and applied other cures (normal at the time but very misguided) and Washington died within two quick days.
The general’s illness was so brief that the news of his passing reached Congress, which was meeting in Philadelphia, before the legislators even learned that the former president had been sick. On December 18, a passenger jumped from a stagecoach and relayed the news to Congressman John Marshall. Visibly moved, Marshall reported to his colleagues that this “distressing intelligence is not certain.” Official word arrived the next day. “Our Washington,” as Marshall called him, was gone. By then, the general was already entombed.
Washington had always been afraid of being buried alive and had requested on his deathbed that he not be put in the vault until at least three days after he died. He was laid to rest at Mount Vernon on December 18, 1799 at the age of 67. The ceremony became the template for memorial services that absorbed the nation over the next two months. Alexandria, Virginia’s, military establishment provided the honor guard of horse and foot, arms reversed. A small band, with drums muffled, played the dirge. The general’s riderless horse was armed with saddle holsters and pistols; his coffin was borne by young officers from the Virginia militia.
As the brief Anglican and Masonic burial services were conducted at the tomb and a short eulogy was delivered by Washington’s pastor, the booming salute of 11 artillery pieces on shore answered the sharp crack of minute guns firing from a rocking schooner out on the gray Potomac River. With each salvo, a Masonic banner fluttered in the breeze: “Washington in glory; America in tears.”
Mourning Washington Across the Nation
On January 6, President John Adams issued an official proclamation urging Americans to gather on Washington’s birthday, February 22, “publickly to testify their grief” with “suitable Eulogies, Orations, and Discourses, or by Public Prayers.” During the six-week mourning period, well over 300 eulogies were delivered in nearly 200 hamlets, towns, and cities.
Federalist Massachusetts alone held more than 100 memorial services in some 60 places. Speakers from Natchez to New Haven declared Washington “the American Moses” and held his example up proudly against such lesser men as Cromwell, Napoleon, Caesar, and Alexander the Great.
It usually took from three to four weeks for travelers to cover the 650 miles from Philadelphia to Kentucky. Perhaps the news of Washington’s death finally arrived in Lexington the third week in January with the “handsome assortment,” as reported in the local Gazette, of trade goods, including velvet, coarse muslin, books, Bibles, screws, saws, Cuban sugar, and rifles. On January 21, the Gazette also reported that the town trustees had voted to “join the procession on Saturday next from respect of the Revolutionary hero, George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary Army of the United States, who led his country to Independence and then resumed his station as a private citizen in 1783.”
The theme of Washington, the American Cincinnatus, who had returned to the plow after saving the republic, was an important one throughout the mourning period, and the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of Washington’s fellow Continental officers, organized numerous memorial services.
By March 6, the local paper published Washington’s last testament. In October, shops were selling copies of his will printed on white silk, alongside Dr. Gann’s Anti-Bilious Pills and Hamilton’s Grand Restorative for Dissipated Pleasures and Immoderate Use of Tea.
Back across the Appalachians in Lexington, Virginia, local people felt an unusual connection with Washington. A few years prior to his death, Washington endowed the struggling local college with the equivalent of $50,000 of canal stock, among the largest bequests to any college in the early republic. The school, Liberty Hall, was renamed Washington Academy in his honor. Captain William Lyle, veteran of the decisive battle of Guilford Courthouse in North Carolina, called together the local trustees of the college and began planning a memorial service to take place on Washington’s birthday, February 22, 1800, already a holiday at the school.
On February 22, a procession of students, faculty, trustees, veterans, and “a respectable number of citizens” slowly moved from the campus to the courthouse, where the college’s rector delivered a fitting eulogy. The pragmatic Scotch-Irish trustees, who viewed Washington’s death as the “most distressing circumstance that ever befel the U. States” and who deeply felt the “loss of our common parent,” met afterward and voted to use their anticipated benefaction, recently recorded in Washington’s will, to make repairs at the college, to buy new library books, and to pay off its £500 debt.
Philadelphians, who were enjoying their final months as citizens of the nation’s capital, would not be denied a state funeral — even if they had no corpse. They settled for a spectacular mock funeral service, held the day after Christmas. It was a magnified replica of the simpler Mount Vernon service, remembered especially for Congressman Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee’s famous “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen …” speech that included the oft-repeated theme that the “purity” of Washington’s “private character gave effulgence to his public virtues.”
For the next two months, as the nation mourned, posted sentries in Philadelphia guarded an empty bier. On January 8, 1800, a writer in the Pennsylvania Gazette summed up a loss he shared with his fellow citizens: “When Washington lived we had one common mind — one common head — one common heart — we were united — we were safe.”
New York City
New Yorkers read of Washington’s death in city newspapers on December 21. Black-bordered headlines announced “Columbia Mourns,” and grim skulls and crossbones bracketed the text. Washington, one news sheet noted, had been the “perfect model of all that is virtuous, noble, great, and dignified in man.” New York selected the last day of the year for its solemnities and tapped Gouverneur Morris as the principle eulogist. His theme was Washington’s wisdom and his “judgement” that “was always clear because his mind was pure.” A huge crowd listened in “extacy” and burst into applause at its end.
Earlier that same week, the managers of the city’s Park Theater organized a striking tableau based on a popular illustration, “An America Lamenting Her Loss.” As the curtain rose, an overflow audience (including women “covered with badges of mourning”) discovered a Greek tomb, a portrait of the general, and a hero’s crown of oak above a sword, shield, helmet, and national flag. An American eagle wept streams of blood and hoisted in its beak a scroll announcing “A Nation’s Tears.”
Word of Washington’s death began to spread in Federalist Boston on Christmas Eve, three days after the news hit New York City. Because of their political leanings, Revolutionary heritage, and Washington’s role in driving the British out of the city in 1776, Bostonians felt a special bond with the dead Virginian. Their celebration, perhaps more so than any other, revealed the general’s power — in death as in life — to unify and inspire the public.
On January 9, businesses closed throughout the city, ships in the harbor flew flags at half-staff, guns barked, and bells tolled to honor the “memory of the great, the good, and beloved Washington.” The crowd — 6,000 men, women, and children wearing mourning ribbons and bands — gathered at the new State House. Precisely at noon, they became a common unit, marching six abreast. The procession began with schoolboys and their teachers, followed by a multitude of local bodies that ranged from militia companies and Masons to physicians, lawyers, clergy, and mechanics, with “not enumerated” citizens bringing up the rear.
With silent dignity, the mourners began to walk through the narrow brick streets, ending at the Old South Meeting House, where all the various elements took designated places and listened to George Richards Minot’s eulogy. A local paper noted, “The assemblage of all ranks in society, from venerable age to lisping infancy, to pay tribute to the virtues and services of Washington, was inexpressibly interesting.”
Some speakers could not let pass unnoticed that the news of the national savior’s death had arrived during the Christmas season. By the second week of February, with the tide of hero worship rising all about them, some New Englanders had second thoughts about an unrepublican lurch toward untempered pride and sanctification. Congregationalists from Connecticut to Rhode Island cautioned against transforming even so virtuous a man into a saint!
Abigail Adams, with her usual eloquent common sense, brought the whole matter firmly back to earth: “Simple truth is his best, his greatest eulogy. She alone can render his fame immortal.”
Praise did not stop at the nation’s shores. Within two weeks of the great Boston event and at about the same time it reached Lexington, Kentucky, the news spread to England on ships like the Active, home at last from Virginia “in a very leaky state” after a stormy passage.
On January 25, the phlegmatic London Times briefly reported Washington’s death, including the “remarkable circumstance, which redounds to his eternal honour, that while President … he never appointed one of his own relations to any office of trust or emolument.”
By February 4, 1800, American diplomat John Quincy Adams, posted to the continent, had just heard the sad news “by way of England.”
A month later, Adams wrote the American Secretary of State describing the honors that Napoleon had paid to Washington: French battle standards had been draped in black; Washington’s bust was to be placed in the Tuileries, beside other modern and ancient heroes; eulogies were delivered in Paris (despite a simmering, unofficial naval war between France and the United States).
At about the same time that Adams heard of Washington’s death, a Dartmouth College student wrote to a friend. Young Daniel Webster’s letter of February 5 was filled with foreboding, as chilling as a New Hampshire winter. The recent news of Washington’s death started Webster reflecting on current politics, racked by tumult, diplomatic intrigue, partisan strife, scandals, and a scurrilous press. As the country began the savage presidential campaign of 1800, one that teemed with epithets like Tory, atheist, bigot, poltroon, and traitor, the young Federalist feared calamity and civil war.
During the early weeks of 1800, ancient rites of mourning and remembrance had calmed conflict and briefly united a nervous republic. Webster, already wise beyond his years, summed up the major thrust of that remarkable and unprecedented wintry season of national grief. Webster’s hope, indeed the prayer of the entire country, was that the spirit of the dead Virginian might still endure to “guard the liberties of his country” and “direct the sword of freedom …” But what lay ahead, he pondered, now that General Washington, “the great political cement,” is dead?
–Author Taylor Sanders is a professor of history at Washington and Lee University (formerly Washington Academy) in Lexington, Virginia, a school endowed by George Washington. Washington and Lee celebrated its 250th anniversary in 1999. Sanders is a member of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Maryland.
Enjoy learning about George Washington? Did you know that The Old Farmer’s Almanac was founded during his presidency? Here are two more articles from the Almanac archives: