The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington

By Ferling, John | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington


Ferling, John, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Long Farewell: Americans Mourn the Death of George Washington * Gerald E. Kahler * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008 * xii, 190 pp. * $30.00

Americans grieved at the news of the unexpected death of George Washington in December 1799, and many were concerned, even alarmed, at what his passing might mean. After all, under his leadership the United States had won the Revolutionary War, adopted a popular constitution, and successfully launched a new national government. Now the young American nation would have to survive without him.

More than 400 memorial services for Washington were held, beginning on 26 December with a mock funeral in Philadelphia, the capital of the United States. In succeeding days solemn observances were conducted in every large city, and on 22 February 1 800, which Congress proclaimed as a day of national mourning, countless villages held services in honor of the fallen leader.

The Long Farewell by Gerald E. Kahler, an independent scholar, is a useful guide to how Americans collectively grieved at Washington's demise. After a lengthy depiction of the funeral in Philadelphia, Kahler describes numerous other services, drawing on more than 300 surviving eulogies as well as accounts and descriptions of services printed in more than forty newspapers.

Kahler demonstrates that the Federalist Party, which controlled Congress in 1799, orchestrated the mock funeral in Philadelphia for political purposes. The party not only used the occasion as a means of claiming that Washington was one of their own, but it also emphasized themes in Washington's Farewell Address that tallied with the politics and world view of most Federalists.

Proceeding topically, Kahler also examines how women, the Provisional Army, Masons, the Society of the Cincinnati, and the clergy mourned Washington. Following the lead of Abigail Adams, the First Lady, women throughout the country wore badges of mourning in honor of Washington. Clergymen preached jeremiads excoriating contemporaries for deviating from the virtues of the founding generation and of Washington in particular. …

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