This year marks the bicentennial of the death of George Washington, the first president of the United States, who died on December 14, 1799, at the age of 67. In his last will and testament, Washington requested a simple and quiet burial, but his fame did not allow him to go without ceremony. The commemoration of his life and death began on December 18, when friends, relatives, dignitaries, military officers, and representatives from the Masonic Order participated in an elaborate funeral at Mount Vernon.
Special commemorative newspapers decorated with black mourning borders carried word of Washington's death to the nation. What followed was a wave of universal mourning that began on December 26, the formal day of mourning in the nation's capital of Philadelphia, and continued for several months. The young nation expressed its grief in private letters, in resolutions by Congress and state and local governments, and in hundreds of commemorative speeches and mock funerals across the country. So fervent was the need to express bereavement that ladies decorated their clothing with black silk and wore memorial jewelry, while men donned black armbands. Shoppers and storekeepers noted a scarcity of black material and accessories as late as July 1800.
It was to explore the many and varied facets of what was the greatest mourning period in the history of the United States that this exhibit brought together approximately forty books, pamphlets, engravings, lithographs, and other artifacts. Objects from this exhibit not pictured in the pamphlet, will soon be available for viewing on this website.
Philander D. Chase, Editor in Chief of the Papers of George Washington, supported this project from its inception. He immediately recognized the importance of participating in Mount Vernon's bicentennial community program that encouraged towns, schools, corporations, and civic and patriotic organizations to plan events that focused on Washington. Although exhibits are beyond the usual scope of the work done at the Papers, the editors took this opportunity to disseminate knowledge about Washington to a general audience. Thus a Concert of Mourning and its companion exhibit, In His Own Hand: Editing the Papers of George Washington, became part of our efforts to commemorate the bicentennial of Washington's death.
The staff of the University of Virginia Special Collections in Alderman Library provided essential support by lending the space and many artifacts for the display. All illustrations and catalog entries in this pamphlet are from Special Collections unless otherwise noted. Thanks go to George Riser, Exhibits Coordinator, for sharing his knowledge of exhibit design; to Kathryn Morgan, Head of Collections Services, for her assistance; to the Associates of the University of Virginia Library for their support, especially Sara Lee Barnes, Executive Secretary, for her enthusiasm and tireless efforts; and to Ken Jensen, Director of Publications, and Melissa Norris, publicist, for help in promoting the exhibit.
Additional assistance from The Library Company of Philadelphia, the Virginia Historical Society, and the Kenmore Association resulted in the critical inclusion of three-dimensional artifacts and works of art. For giving their time and expertise, we would like to recognize Sarah J. Weatherwax, Curator of Prints and Photographs, The Library Company of Philadelphia; William Rasmussen, Curator of Art, the Virginia Historical Society; and Nancy W. Barksdale, Education Coordinator, the Kenmore Association.
As the exhibit developed, other experts at the University of Virginia provided advice and technical support: Phil Chase, Frank Grizzard, Robert Haggard, Ed Lengel, Mark Mastromarino, Christine Patrick, and Beverly Runge, editors of the Papers of George Washington; Phyllis Leffler, Director of the Institute for Public History; Felicia Johnson, Assistant Coordinator, and the staff of the Special Collections Digital Center; and Pauline Page, Microphotographer, Printing and Copying Services.
Special recognition goes to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the Packard Humanities Institute, and private donors for their ongoing support of the Papers of George Washington.
Mary Anne Andrei