Historical Markers
National Funeral for President Washington Historical Marker
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National Funeral for President Washington

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
4th and Cherry Street

Dedication Date:
December 1999

Behind the Marker

During his two terms as the nation's first president, George Washington worked hard to keep the peace between the Federalists, led by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and the Democratic Republicans, led by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Over time, however, the president became increasingly identified with Hamilton's policies. Criticism of the chief executive grew following the Jay Treaty of 1794, which many viewed as a sell-out to the British and repudiation of the French Revolution. Few of Washington's critics were nastier or more hateful than Philadelphia journalist Benjamin Franklin Bache, a grandson of markerBenjamin Franklin and publisher of the newspaper The Aurora, who accused Washington of being an "Anglomaniac" engaged in the "rapid march of our government towards monarchy."
Family, friends, physician, and domestics gather around Washington's death bed.
Death of Washington, pub. by James Baillie, circa 1845.

On December 14, 1799, Washington died at Mount Vernon, Virginia only two years after voluntarily stepping down as president of the United States. Four days later, his family held his funeral at Mount Vernon, and placed his remains in a receiving vault located down the slope of the hill toward the Potomac River. News traveled much slower in the 1790s than today. And it was only on the day of his funeral that the United States Congress, still in session in Philadelphia, learned of his death. Shortly after, a joint committee of Congress drafted memorial resolutions and set December 26 as a day of formal mourning in the city. Philadelphia's mayor, Robert Wharton, requested that the bells of Christ Church, where Washington for years had attended Sunday services, be muffled for three days "as a mark of the deep regret with which the citizens of this place view the melancholy news."

As word of Washington's death spread across the nation, the criticisms that had dogged him while president were forgotten. Washington instantly became the greatest of American heroes, and his national funeral in Philadelphia a day of national mourning and contemplation. On the appointed day, sixteen cannon were fired to announce the day of mourning. Afterward, one of the cannon fired every half hour until 11:30 am, when a procession of Congress, a military guard, and other civic leaders, escorted a bier from Sixth and Chestnut Streets to Zion Lutheran Church, the largest house of worship in the city. There, Bishop William White, rector of Christ Church, conducted the service.

General Richard Henry Lee, who had led the militia against the Whiskey rebels in 1794, gave the hastily written and poorly delivered eulogy. Lee had married into the Custis family to which Martha Washington belonged, and thus was the most prominent American closely related to the former president. It did, however, contain one phrase that American school children would learn and recite for generations to come: "First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen." (In 1807, Lee would father Robert E. Lee, who did more than any other man to threaten the union that Washington and his father had founded.)
View on Fourth Street above Market Street showing the funeral procession instituted by a congressional decree in honor of the first president. Depicts a riderless horse, pallbearers carrying a draped empty bier adorned with swords and tricorn hat, and several other parade participants, including members of Congress and militia volunteers, slowly moving passed several mourning spectators. Mourners line the street, watch from the windows of several buildings, and stand within a market shed, including a woman and child and a weeping veteran in uniform.
High Street from Country Market Place with the procession in commemoration...

The National Funeral at Philadelphia on December 26, 1799, triggered a process of deification that continued well into the 1800s. Contemporaries responded to his death in sermons, song, paintings and sculpture. Artists and historians presented Washington as the last of the classical heroes, a figure whose charismatic leadership embodied the eighteenth-century Enlightenment ideal of the classical republic. Mediums claimed that Washington communicated with them - Southerners that he favored slavery and states rights, Northerners that he opposed it and was an ardent nationalist.

Congress made its own plans to re-intern Washington in the new national capital that was to bear his name. On December 28, it approved the erection of a monument to Washington's memory on the banks of the Potomac. It then requested the privilege, which his family granted, of depositing his remains at the new seat of the national government, which would be named in his honor. Americans, however, failed to put up the funds needed to complete the Washington Monument until the 1880s, so the general's remains stayed at Mount Vernon, where they remain today.
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